Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.
This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber — as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals — are Christians but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.
And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without fear having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.
This was an honest, sensitive debate hosted by O’Reilly. At the start of the debate Bill invited me, challenged me to tell him where he was wrong for stating the fact that “Muslims killed us there,” in the 9/11 attacks. He made that initial statement on the ABC program, “The View,” which caused some of the co-hosts to walk off the set. They did not return until O’Reilly apologized for not being clear that he did not mean the country was attacked by all Muslims but by extremist radical Muslims.
I took Bill’s challenge and began by saying that political correctness can cause people to become so paralyzed that they don’t deal with reality. And the fact is that it was a group of Muslims who attacked the U.S. I added that radicalism has continued to pose a threat to the United States and much of the world. That threat was expressed in court last week by the unsuccessful Times Square bomber who bragged that he was just one of the first engaged in a “Muslim War” against the United States. There is no doubt that there’s a real war and people are trying to kill us.
Mary Katharine Ham, a conservative writer, joined the debate to say that it is important to make the distinction between moderate and extreme Islam for conservatives who support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the premise that the U.S. can build up moderate elements in those countries and push out the extremists. I later added that we don’t want anyone attacked on American streets because “they heard rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy.” Bill agreed and said the man who slashed the cabby was a “nut” and so was the Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Koran.
My point in recounting this debate is to show this was in the best American tradition of a fair, full-throated and honest discourse about the issues of the day. There was no bigotry, no crude provocation, no support for anti-Muslim sentiments of any kind.
Two days later, Ellen Weiss, my boss at NPR called to say I had crossed the line, essentially accusing me of bigotry. She took the admission of my visceral fear of people dressed in Muslim garb at the airport as evidence that I am a bigot. She said there are people who wear Muslim garb to work at NPR and they are offended by my comments. She never suggested that I had discriminated against anyone. Instead she continued to ask me what did I mean and I told her I said what I meant. Then she said she did not sense remorse from me. I said I made an honest statement. She informed me that I had violated NPR’s values for editorial commentary and she was terminating my contract as a news analyst.
I pointed out that I had not made my comments on NPR. She asked if I would have said the same thing on NPR. I said yes, because in keeping with my values I will tell people the truth about feelings and opinions.
I asked why she would fire me without speaking to me face to face and she said there was nothing I could say to change her mind, the decision had been confirmed above her, and there was no point to meeting in person. To say the least this is a chilling assault on free speech. The critical importance of honest journalism and a free flowing, respectful national conversation needs to be had in our country. But it is being buried as collateral damage in a war whose battles include political correctness and ideological orthodoxy.
I say an ideological battle because my comments on “The O’Reilly Factor” are being distorted by the self-righteous ideological, left-wing leadership at NPR. They are taking bits and pieces of what I said to go after me for daring to have a conversation with leading conservative thinkers. They loathe the fact that I appear on Fox News. They don’t notice that I am challenging Bill O’Reilly and trading ideas with Sean Hannity. In their hubris they think by talking with O’Reilly or Hannity I am lending them legitimacy. Believe me, Bill O’Reilly (and Sean, too) is a major force in American culture and politics whether or not I appear on his show.
Years ago NPR tried to stop me from going on “The Factor.” When I refused they insisted that I not identify myself as an NPR journalist. I asked them if they thought people did not know where I appeared on the air as a daily talk show host, national correspondent and news analyst. They refused to budge.
This self-reverential attitude was on display several years ago when NPR asked me to help them get an interview with President George W. Bush. I have longstanding relationships with some of the key players in his White House due to my years as a political writer at The Washington Post. When I got the interview some in management expressed anger that in the course of the interview I said to the president that Americans pray for him but don’t understand some of his actions. They said it was wrong to say Americans pray for him.
Later on the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock crisis President Bush offered to do an NPR interview with me about race relations in America. NPR management refused to take the interview on the grounds that the White House offered it to me and not their other correspondents and hosts. One NPR executive implied I was in the administration’s pocket, which is a joke, and there was no other reason to offer me the interview. Gee, I guess NPR news executives never read my bestselling history of the civil rights movement “Eyes on the Prize — America’s Civil Rights Years,” or my highly acclaimed biography “Thurgood Marshall — American Revolutionary.” I guess they never noticed that “ENOUGH,” my last book on the state of black leadership in America, found a place on the New York Times bestseller list.
This all led to NPR demanding that I either agree to let them control my appearances on Fox News and my writings or sign a new contract that removed me from their staff but allowed me to continue working as a news analyst with an office at NPR. The idea was that they would be insulated against anything I said or wrote outside of NPR because they could say that I was not a staff member. What happened is that they immediately began to cut my salary and diminish my on-air role. This week when I pointed out that they had forced me to sign a contract that gave them distance from my commentary outside of NPR I was cut off, ignored and fired.
And now they have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.
Daniel Schorr, my fellow NPR commentator who died earlier this year, used to talk about the initial shock of finding himself on President Nixon’s enemies list. I can only imagine Dan’s revulsion to realize that today NPR treats a journalist who has worked for them for ten years with less regard, less respect for the value of independence of thought and embrace of real debate across political lines, than Nixon ever displayed.
Juan Williams is now a full-time Fox News contributor. This article originally appeared on Fox Forum.