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10.21.10

NPR's Juan Williams Disaster

His firing has backfired, handing Fox a victory and making Williams a symbol of liberal intolerance—on the very day NPR announced a grant from George Soros that it never should have accepted.

After watching Bill O’Reilly lead an hour of NPR-bashing on Fox News Thursday night, it’s tempting to say that the right’s reaction to the Juan Williams firing is just a tad overblown.

But it’s not. This was a blunder of enormous proportions. Even many liberals—Donna Brazile, Joan Walsh, Whoopi Goldberg—are castigating National Public Radio for throwing Williams overboard.

NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller—dubbed a “pinhead” by O’Reilly—made matters worse by suggesting that Williams needs psychiatric attention. She later apologized.

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John Boehner, who may well be the next House Speaker, told National Review that it’s “reasonable to ask why Congress is spending taxpayers’ money to support a left-wing radio network.”

And in a triumph of awful timing, yesterday was the day that NPR announced a new grant—$1.8 million from liberal philanthropist George Soros to hire 100 new reporters. No news organization should accept that kind of check from a committed ideologue of any stripe. Even if every journalist hired with the cash from Soros’ foundation is fair and balanced, to coin a phrase, the perception is terrible. (This New York Times story didn’t even mention Soros’ liberal views. The guy just gave a million bucks to Media Matters. Hello?) Oh, and NPR is in the midst of a fundraising drive. Good luck with that.

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Even Sarah Palin, who’s also on the Fox payroll, has gotten into the act, tweeting: “NPR defends First Amendment Right, but will fire u if u exercise it. Juan Williams: u got taste of Left’s hypocrisy, they screwed up firing you.”

The question is whether he was axed for what he said or where he said it.

No need to worry about Williams—Roger Ailes has already taken care of him with a three-year, $2 million contract, an impressive figure for a part-time contributor. And he has suddenly become a national symbol of political correctness run amok.

Williams told O’Reilly that his NPR bosses “were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I'm on Fox News. They don't want me talking to you.”

To be sure, I suspect that if Williams had said the same thing to Charlie Rose, rather than on The O’Reilly Factor, he’d still have his radio job. Last year, Politico reported, NPR tried to persuade its White House correspondent, Mara Liasson, to give up her Fox gig.

What Williams said makes me uncomfortable, but it isn’t close to being a firing offense—not for someone who is paid for his opinions.

For those just tuning in, O’Reilly was trying to get support Monday for his misstep on The View—the one that prompted Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to briefly walk off—that Muslims attacked us on 9/11. That sure sounded like he was blaming all Muslims, which O’Reilly denied with an apology to anyone who heard it that way.

Here’s what Williams said:

“I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil-rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Is that blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few extremists? Sure. But Williams was describing his feelings, not saying that Muslims should be singled out for profiling or otherwise discriminated against.

He went on to caution against blaming all members of a religion:

“Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.”

Crazy indeed.

Speaking of mental health, Schiller said the firing “is not a reflection on his comments, this is not a debate, Juan feels the way he feels, that is not for me to pass judgment on, that is, really, his feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between him and his psychiatrist or publicist or take your pick, but it is not compatible with role of a news analyst on NPR air.”

But are those remarks so far beyond the pale that he couldn’t continue as an NPR analyst? Or is it that Schiller’s team didn’t agree with Williams—thus reinforcing NPR’s image as a left-leaning operation? If he had said that it was bigoted to have a passing worry about Muslims on airplanes, would that have been OK?

To make matters worse, Williams says that after more than a decade at NPR, he was fired in a cellphone call by NPR Vice President Ellen Weiss, who declined his request for an in-person conversation.

Again, I’m not endorsing what Juan Williams said. The remarks contain a strong hint of intolerance. But it’s not quite like saying that Jews control the networks, part of the rant that prompted CNN to fire Rick Sanchez.

At the same time, I’m not jumping on the defund-NPR bandwagon being pushed by the likes of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, another Fox commentator. It’s just as unfair to the radio hosts and reporters who aren’t ideological to have the government punish them over the Williams incident. Federal funding for NPR should rise or fall on its own merits.

Williams has always occupied an uneasy ground as an African American who sometimes criticizes blacks, and a liberal who isn’t far left enough for some liberals. When he was a Washington Post columnist in 1991, he took immense heat from his “side” for defending Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s charges—a story that has catapulted back into the news this week with Thomas’ wife Ginni asking Hill for an apology.

The Fox assault continued last night. Sean Hannity teed off on NPR, and had pollster Frank Luntz ask a focus group whether Williams was fired unfairly. Nearly all the hands went up.

There’s no constitutional right to a high-profile media job, so NPR certainly has the right to dump Williams. The question is whether he was axed for what he said or where he said it.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.