Whatever the firing of Juan Williams does, or does not, say about National Public Radio, it says a lot about the American right. First, its extraordinary lack of empathy for Muslims. When Williams said that “when I get on the plane…if I see people who are in Muslim garb…I get worried,” he was voicing a stereotype. Like many stereotypes, this one has a small basis in reality: Muslims (although not in “Muslim garb”) did blow up airplanes on 9/11. And like most stereotypes, it extrapolates from that narrow truth in a way that harms large numbers of innocent people. Most of the time, in such circumstances, even people sympathetic to the stereotyper acknowledge that the stereotype does real harm. Had Williams said that “when I get on the subway…if young black men are wearing hip-hop clothes…I get worried,” even Bill O’Reilly and company would likely have acknowledged that such an attitude is unfair to the African-American young. Had Williams said that “when I get on the train…if I see someone reading a Bible…I think they’re closed-minded,” O’Reilly would have screamed discrimination until his head exploded. But in this case, the right-wing pundits and politicians who lined up to defend Williams and denounce NPR didn’t even acknowledge the harm such stereotypes do to innocent Muslims. From their statements, in fact, you’d hardly know that there are innocent Muslims. Williams was fired, wrote Sarah Palin, “for merely speaking frankly about the very real threat that this country faces from radical Islam.” But Williams wasn’t talking about the “threat…from radical Islam,” he was talking about anyone who looks Muslim. For Palin, it’s one and the same. This, of course, is exactly the attitude that animated the right’s opposition to the “ground zero” mosque: Since “Muslims attacked us on 9/11,” as O’Reilly famously declared on The View, Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. They lost their right to be treated like other Americans when the twin towers fell.
The second revealing thing about the right’s reaction to Williams’ firing is what is says about conservative populism. Republican pols are climbing over each other to defund NPR, not merely because of its “liberal bias,” but because, in the words of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, its programs “should be able to find a way to stand on their own” in the free market. “It bothers me when I see left-leaning indications in some of their reporting,” added Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, “but the bigger issue is, even if they were neutral, I would not want taxpayers to use their hard-earned dollars to subsidize broadcasting.” Williams himself now calls NPR “elitist” because they don’t “compete in the marketplace.”
Yes, NPR is elitist, and it’s a good thing too. The people who run the station believe that Americans should know more about what is happening in China and less about what is happening to Britney Spears, which in today’s media makes them downright subversive. That’s why NPR now has 17 foreign bureaus compared to four for CBS. It’s why, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, NPR devotes 21 percent of its airtime to international news compared to 1 percent for commercial talk radio. NPR doesn’t get a lot of public money, but the funding it does get makes it somewhat easier to do this foreign reporting, which also cost more than it brings in.
The more the rest of the media abandons the field, the more important NPR’s foreign reporting becomes. Yes, there are now websites overflowing with information about everything in the world, but very few have the resources and expertise to do the kind of reporting NPR does. And since America is increasingly buffeted by decisions made in other countries, our national ignorance is becoming a threat to our national security. Once upon a time, there was a wing of American conservatism that recognized that there were public goods and cultural standards that needed to be insulated from the whims of the market. Today, that’s considered elitist. Flagrant ignorance, by contrast, especially about the rest of the world, is a sign of populism, a sign that you don’t think you’re better than anyone else. On the right today, Sarah Palin isn’t adored in spite of her parochialism; she’s adored because of it.
Williams wasn’t talking about the “threat…from radical Islam,” he was talking about anyone who looks Muslim. For Palin, it’s one and the same.
• Howard Kurtz: NPR’s Juan Williams Disaster• Michael Moore: Juan Williams Is RightIf the right were advocating isolationist policies—if it was anti-war and anti-free trade, as it was in the 1920s—then this intellectual isolationism might make more sense. But folks like Palin want America to grow more and more economically integrated with other countries and they want America to keep invading them. That being the case, shouldn’t we keep funding NPR, so someone can tell Americans where those countries actually are?
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.