The First Amendment, Hypocrisy, and Bias: Juan Williams as Case Study

23 Oct

Juan Williams’ recent firing from NPR has tempers flaring and opinions blaring. Amidst all the anger and rhetoric, a couple of key points keep getting overlooked or misrepresented. Whether or not you like Juan Williams or believe he’s a “liberal commentator”, whatever your opinion of NPR or FOX, it is very important to consider the facts of the case.

First, the First Amendment – I am a big proponent of freedom of speech. (Just look at this blog’s reluctant defense of Fred Phelps!) But let’s look at the real issue here. The relevant clause is “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” Over time, of course, court decisions have expanded (and limited) the power and meaning of this clause, but at the core, it refers to abridgement of speech by law.  Many cases have upheld the right of employers to put restrictions on the speech of their employees. I am a government employee and my employer, the government, places restrictions on what I can say when I represent that employer. This is reasonable and right, even if it is difficult at times. I took my job knowing this was the situation. The same is true of Juan Williams as a news analyst. Feel free to disagree with NPR’s standards, but they are applying them consistently and fairly and Juan Williams violated them repeatedly.

Second, the issue of bias  – Juan Williams made an inflammatory statement. I appreciate the well-reasoned comments by many who point out that unless we discuss our fears we cannot overcome them. In this case, however, even if that had been Williams’ intent, it was not his outcome. The phrase in his comments that sunk him was “they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims”. With that statement, Williams engaged in profiling, a practice he himself has condemned, saying, “Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me.”  Yes, Williams artlessly backpedalled after the fact, acknowledging that he knows he shouldn’t feel that way and wanted to make a point. But this is a man who makes his living with words. If he cannot choose them carefully, he demonstrates that he cannot do his job.

Third, the hypocrisy – Right-wing pundits (and many others) are screaming that NPR violated Williams’ rights and should be stripped of its Federal funding (the 2% of its budget it receives indirectly through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for stifling him. All he did was say how he really feels, right? What’s wrong with that? Where were these people when Helen Thomas lost her job for criticizing Israel?  Where were they when Bill Maher or Phil Donahue got cancelled for saying what they really thought? (Glenn Greenwald has a great overview. It’s required reading for context on this issue.) The outrage in this case is hypocritical and ties back to the issue of bias. It was fine for Williams to express his fears because he targeted our current national boogeyman. Criticizing Muslims is still fine and will be defended.

Finally, the summations – There is no clearer articulation of this case than a comparison of two articles. First, the very thoughtful and thorough piece by the NPR Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard. I disagree with the title of the piece, but it clearly lays out the whole context for Williams’ dismissal. Second, if you can get through it, read Williams’ own adolescent rant about the situation, published by his new employer, FOX News.   Williams misrepresents his comments and attempts to reinvent the conversation. (Calling any O’Reilly interview an “honest, sensitive debate” is the first red flag.) His characterization of his relationship with NPR makes it clear that his change of employers is in everyone’s best interests.

We need these kinds of situations to force us to look at issues we often gloss over. The phrases “freedom of speech” and “journalistic ethics” are so rote in our national dialogue that we sometimes trot them out without thinking. Thank you, Juan Williams, for burning up your fifteen minutes helping reasonable people understand that actions have consequences.

(PS – Thanks to The Rev. Chuck Currie for a fantastic post on this topic that helped me gather my thoughts.)

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