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Juan Williams Gets Fired from NPR for Stoking Religious Tensions

NPR terminated the contract of veteran news analyst Juan Williams on Wednesday over Williams said on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor, “I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. 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." Later in the discussion, Williams stressed that he believes in the obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and that Islam is not synonymous with terrorism.

The controversy over the rapid termination has touched on deeper questions about the state fact-based, objective journalism and the health of the public discourse in the United States.

Juan Williams is not a bad guy and people who are fans of NPR's work have misgivings about immediate termination of Williams after something like this. But the kind of stereotyping Williams engaged in while appearing on a media outlet known for advancing a dogmatic conservative agenda is harmful to American democracy.

Stoking religious tensions—especially after recent events like controversy over an Islamic community center in New York City and talk of banning "creeping Sharia law" from conservative politicians—for a kind of performance journalism with no positive contribution to the public discourse is offensive. Declaring that Muslims as a type scare Williams is unacceptable for a responsible journalist. It cheapens the critical debate on the limits of American pluralism.

NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, reports that the media outlet received a tremendous volume of angry calls and emails from the public, upset with the hurried sacking of Williams.

“Thursday was a day like none I’ve experienced since coming to NPR in October 2007," she wrote. "Office phone lines rang non-stop like an alarm bell with no off button. We’ve received more than 8,000 emails, a record with nothing a close second.”

Fox’s Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Mike Hucabee, and a tweet put forth by Sarah Palin, have all called for the end of all federal funding of NPR. About one percent of NPR’s budget comes from the federal government, though competitive grants offered by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. However, individual NPR affiliates do receive a significant portion of their budgets from federal funding. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other conservatives have indicated they may be willing to propose legislation to divest public money from NPR completely over the controversy.

But while much attention has been paid to this particular incident, Williams has had a controversial history at NPR. The news outlet changed his status from staff correspondent to contractual analyst in 2009 due to explicit policy positions he espoused on television and in opinion pieces. Williams made controversial remarks on Fox in 2008 inspired 378 heated emails to NPR’s ombudsman. A 2009 post on NPR’s blog about how Williams compared Michelle Obama to “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress,” drew 216 comments. In the post on Williams' firing this week, Shepard wrote, “In fact, since I became Ombudsman in October 2007, no other NPR employee has generated as much controversy as Williams.”

Meanwhile, conservative commentators seem more interested in painting this as NPR folding to the pressure of political correctness. Fox’s O'Reilly cites “heat from the Muslims” as one of the primary reasons for Williams’s termination. The ever insightful Hannity correctly points out that whatever the reason given for Williams’s termination, the more salient issue here is the state of free speech in America. But Williams' comments, as free as they were, still caused damage to the discourse over Muslims in America.

Today NPR is wrapping up its annual fundraising campaign, soliciting donations from listeners, including a sizable donation from liberal philanthropist George Soros. Meanwhile, Fox has offered Williams a $2 million multi-year contract to appear on Fox programs and write for FoxNews.com as a contributor. Maybe he made the smart choice; with conservative pundits and politicians fanning the flames of this controversy, any appearance by Williams on Fox will surely yield high ratings. After all, isn’t that what journalism is all about?

Kayvan Farchadi is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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