Wednesday night, as I was doing my usual late-night scouring of the web for news, I was surprised to see that NPR was firing Juan Williams for comments he’d made on Bill O'Reilly’s Fox News Channel show. I knew that NPR had taken heavy listener criticism for years over Juan’s comments on FNC. However, I’d figured that if the network was going to terminate him for expressing opinion, they would have done so already. Juan also shares plenty of personal opinions in his books.
When I later watched the full appearance on O'Reilly, I was even more surprised. Having interviewed Juan several times, talked with him off-air on a couple of occasions, and read his books, I wouldn’t have put his comments within the realm of bigotry. I heard him establishing a common knee-jerk fear of terrorism and voicing what many other Americans feel. He went on to clarify the point by arguing with O'Reilly over the Fox host’s characterization of 9/11 on The View by saying, “Muslims attacked us.”
However, among the great calls we received on both sides of this issue was one from a listener who cited Juan’s mentioning, “…people who are in Muslim garb…identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims…” The caller pointed out that wearing clothes connected with a particular religion or culture doesn’t equate to leading with it or making a statement in the process. She was implying that people often wear particular clothes for their own satisfaction, not for an audience.
We also had many listeners angry over Juan’s firing, with some threatening to withdraw financial support from KPCC. I want to emphasize that NPR’s decision was the network’s alone and that KPCC had nothing to do with the decision.
Personally, I’ll miss Juan’s analyses on NPR newsmagazines. I consider him a moderate voice – not an “NPR liberal” (a term that flies in the face of NPR’s typically balanced coverage) as Fox contextualizes him, nor a “Republican-supporting conservative,” as some of his critics on the left have claimed.
The bigger issue this raises is about what are the acceptable limits on what journalists can say in the way of opinion. There’s often a fine line between “analysis” and “commentary.” Where the line is drawn between the two can be pretty hazy.