NPR, which no longer wishes to be addressed as National Public Radio, is under no obligation whatsoever to keep Juan Williams on its payroll. So when the veteran journalist — who functioned as a senior news analyst for NPR by day and a commentator for Fox News Channel by night — admitted to feelings of nervousness and worry whenever he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane, the radio network did not break any laws by letting him go. In a statement, NPR said Williams’ remarks were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst” on its airwaves.
But setting aside the legalities for a moment, in what way precisely did Williams violate the “editorial standards and practices” of NPR? Was it:
(a) by failing to exercise sufficient or appropriate control over his visceral impulses, thereby permitting himself to become “worried” and “nervous” whenever he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane? or
(b) by verbalizing the aforementioned anxieties? or
(c) by giving voice to these sentiments on the Fox News Channel and, in particular, the notoriously incendiary O’Reilly Factor?
Maybe the correct answer is (d): all of the above. Still, it is troubling that a journalist and public commentator of Williams’ stature could be let go on so flimsy a basis as any or all of these pretexts would provide. Does NPR maintain a list of protected constituencies about whom employees are not permitted to experience certain anxieties? And if so, is one at greater risk of detection from the thought police or the speech patrol?
The truth is that what Williams confessed to last Monday was an all-too-common case of your everyday, garden-variety prejudice: an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or without sufficient knowledge. And it goes without saying that prejudice of any kind is always wrong, whether it be directed at Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, immigrants or any of the myriad groups who get targeted as “other” for whatever reason. Unfortunately, prejudice is also a ubiquitous affliction in our society, and there is no reason to expect or believe that public citizens are any less susceptible to its pernicious deceptions than anyone else.
Indeed, sometimes that prejudice can be directed against one’s own group, as when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was widely quoted in November, 1993 as having told a meeting in Chicago:
“There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved…”
Few would argue that Jackson’s comments undermined his credibility as a civil rights advocate, or called into question his commitment to the African American cause. In firing Williams for confessing to a similarly visceral anxiety, NPR set itself up for much of the criticism that has followed and appears much less high-minded an institution than it otherwise purports to be.