op-ed

Juan Williams and the paralysis of reality

Robby Soave Reporter

National Public Radio’s decision yesterday to fire Juan Williams is stirring up considerable animosity toward the partly publicly-funded news organization, and rightly so. Williams’ firing is as maddening as it is unjustified.

In an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor on Tuesday, Williams told Bill O’Reilly, “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.”

Racist!

Except he prefaced this comment by saying, “I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.”

Too bad that’s exactly what happened. Only the rashest political-correctness police could interpret Williams’ comments as inappropriate. They were honest, well intentioned, and made without malice. Williams did not say that Muslims on airplanes should make people uneasy. He said that sometimes certain Muslims on airplanes make him uneasy. He wasn’t exactly proud of feeling this way but couldn’t deny that sometimes that’s how he feels.

It is one thing to advocate that people be treated differently because of their race or religion. But simply having preconceived notions and biases is another matter entirely. Those biases may indeed be wrong, but they won’t be confronted and overcome if everyone hushes up about them. This was the point Williams was making when he observed that political correctness can be paralyzing. How will people move away from generalizations and start treating everybody as individuals if someone as respected, reasonable, and intelligent as Williams can’t have that conversation without losing his job?

Several commentators have observed that the firing may have more to do with Williams’ close relationship with Fox News than anything else. But if NPR is taken at its word, Williams was removed because his comments were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices.” This says volumes about NPR, and none of it encouraging. It has been pointed out, for instance, that NPR has not fired liberal journalists whose remarks toward conservatives are at the very least mean-spirited. But even aside from the obvious double standard, isn’t it bothersome that NPR’s editorial practices mandate absolute silence on the topic Williams was discussing, in the way that he was discussing it?

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller defended the firing earlier today on the grounds that Williams’ comments disqualified him as an objective journalist. Since he worked for NPR as an analyst rather than a commentator, revealing such a bias against Muslims on airplanes made him unfit for his job. In making this argument, Schiller is pushing a standard of objectivity that no journalist could reasonably obtain. Williams’ statements were not overtly opinionated. It’s simply not true that they impeached his credibility to an extent that merited his firing. Juan Williams is, and continues to be, a national media figure respected and appreciated by both sides of the aisle — something very few people can claim.

Since the impeached-credibility argument is so weak, it’s hard to interpret this incident as anything other than the overreaction of an all-too-sensitive media climate, especially when such firings are commonplace. Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN less than a month ago for his remarks about the relative success and influence of Jews in Hollywood. Christopher Hitchens, who called for his reinstatement, had this to say in an article for Slate, “Is it so offensive to note the effectiveness of the Jewish lobby?”

Discussion should trump de facto censorship in almost all cases, especially when elements of truth are present — as they were in the Sanchez case — and when such a discussion is polite and beneficial — as it was in the Williams case. The kind of political correctness being selectively pushed by NPR results in a paralysis where reality is ignored. It’s frightening that a media figure making exactly this point could be fired for his remarks.

Robert Soave is a writer and Michigan native. He currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.