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In 'Muzzled,' Williams tells his side of the story

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In 'Muzzled,' Williams tells his side of the story

Juan Williams outside News Corp in New York City on April 22, 2011.

Flickr/Nick Stepowyj

In his new book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, the journalist Juan Williams argues that his contract was terminated by NPR as part of a larger pattern of the suppression of unwelcome opinions.

Indeed, the overall theme of Muzzled is that reasonable people are being shut up and shut down. He points to longtime journalist Octavia Nasr, fired by CNN for a tweet, a Seattle politician who is hiding because of her proposal to have a “draw Mohammad Day” or moderate politicians who support gun-control measures but keep silent for fear of being targeted by the NRA.

“There are lots of platforms and lots of points of view out there – it’s like going to a New York City street,” Williams says in an interview with NPR. “You hear the cabs honking, the kids screaming, the ice cream truck. You can hear everything out here. But I think to myself...the experience that most Americans have is that they bite their tongue on a regular basis.”

In his case, Williams blames what he says is a small group of elitist liberal news executives at NPR who didn’t like when he expressed his opinions in other news outlets, including on the Fox News Channel.

“I think that what was behind it, in the mind of the executive that fired me, was my willingness to work for Fox, and to engage conservatives,” Williams says, “and to stand up and make arguments that often times were construed as conservative arguments, whether it was on Fox, or in print, or in books.”

Williams is an author and journalist who had previously been a political reporter and then opinion columnist for the Washington Post. In 1997, he became an analyst on Fox News — three years before taking the NPR job. So he says he had a well-developed brand and record before joining NPR in 2000. He started as host of Talk of the Nation, then became a senior correspondent before he was shifted to be a senior news analyst.

NPR officials terminated Williams’ contract after an appearance on Fox News last October. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly asked him what was wrong with his having said on ABC’s The View that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”

Williams said O’Reilly was right, and that political correctness should not dampen political discourse. He added:

I mean, look, Bill, Im not a bigot. You know the kind of books Ive 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.

A minute later, Williams circled back – telling O’Reilly it was important to distinguish between a terrorist and a faith. Williams noted Americans did not blame Christians for Timothy McVeigh’s deadly attack in Oklahoma City.

But critics said Williams had effectively endorsed racial profiling. Ellen Weiss, then NPR’s senior vice president for news, called Williams to cut his contract short. The ensuing outcry from journalists and conservative lawmakers cost Weiss her job in January and helped fuel the later departure of CEO Vivian Schiller two months later. Weiss declined to comment for this story.

These days, no one at NPR defends how Williams was fired. In his book, Williams writes of the emotional toll it took: He describes his fears his career would be hurt and worse that he would be considered a bigot.

Margaret Low Smith is NPR’s acting senior vice president for news. A former NPR News staffer who joined the network 29 years ago, Smith was running another NPR division at the time Williams’ contract was terminated and did not participate in the decision. She said the network had learned, painfully, from its mistakes. But she also said that she did not recognize NPR from Williams’ characterization.

“NPR is a stunningly open-minded place,” Smith said. “We’re deeply encouraging and in fact appreciative of different points of view. Everybody knows that we apply journalistic rigor to absolutely every story we tell. We challenge our own (assumptions) — we challenge everyone’s assumptions in the way we report the news — the way we lead this organization.”

In Muzzled, Williams writes that editors were unhappy with his previous book – Enough – in which he criticized liberal black leaders. Williams, himself black, says he was told by an NPR executive whom he would not identify that he was not in sync with the kind of African-Americans valued by the network.

Yet NPR’s Morning Edition devoted 71/2 minutes to an interview with Williams about Enough — and used it to kick off a week of stories about leadership among African-Americans.

Both Williams and NPR acknowledge tensions were previously raised after he wrote pieces for newspapers such as the Washington Post in which he took opinions on public policy matters.

NPR’s Smith says the network wants to clarify lines between commentary – that is, pure opinion, and analysis.

“Any experienced reporter can provide analysis,” Smith says. “I think of analysis as a breakdown of facts — context and insight. If all you did was report facts without deeper background, it would not be rich reporting.”

Williams says that’s a foolish distinction.

“NPR tried to say, well, because he had expressed his feeling that he was no longer an effective news analyst,” Williams says. “I thought to myself, wait a second: That’s what I was given the latitude to do as a news analyst. Not only to express my feelings – you have to be honest about your feelings – but to express your opinions. That was the whole notion.”

He also points to remarks made 16 years ago by NPR’s Nina Totenberg on a syndicated television show in which she appeared to wish that physical harm befall the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) or his grandchildren in response to his words against gay AIDS victims. Totenberg has expressed regret for those remarks, saying, “I’ll pay for them for the rest of my life.”

NPR’s National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson also appears on Fox News as a paid analyst. While the network last year asked her to rethink the relationship, she remains a presence there. Liasson has repeatedly said she tries to avoid voicing personal opinions, instead offering analysis. Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes has said in the past, however, that Liasson serves the role of a liberal analyst for the network, though she takes issue with that characterization.

After his firing, Williams found widespread sympathy from journalists including Clarence Page, a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. But Page takes issue with some of Williams’ conclusions.

“A lot of what I read in Juan’s account sounds a lot like what many of us go through in newsrooms at one time or another when you’ve got bosses you just don’t see things the same way as over certain issues,” Page says.

Page points to Williams’ two-book deal, his newspaper column and his three-year contract with Fox News — worth a reported $2 million dollars.

“I have a hard time seeing Juan as being muzzled,” Page says. “I have no quarrel with NPR – or Fox News – deciding what’s going to go out over their air – and who the people are going to be putting that stuff over their air.”

The media critic William McGowan is author of the book Gray Lady Down, which contends the New York Times is compromised by liberal bias. He has written critically of NPR in the past for leaning to the left and says the network should leap at a chance for its journalists to appear on Fox shows with conservative hosts.

But that said, he says he’s been a close listener since the mid-1980s – and that it has made great strides in being fair.

“I listen to it at a discount,” McGowan says, “but it’s got a lot to offer. It is not the great Satan that the right wing on Capital Hill makes it out to be.”

Williams’ central contention that people are muzzled occurs amid the presence of cable channels and websites feeding almost every ideology or interest — and the ability of non-journalists to find audiences on Twitter or Tumblr.

He says ordinary people in the sensible center get steamrolled — yet he is a fan of Fox’s high-decibel approach. At Fox News, Williams says nobody tells him what to say.

“I think that you’ve got to have a strong personality, strong points of view in order to succeed in this media landscape,” Williams says.

And there’s a key conflict in a nutshell: NPR says it is trying to avoid those strong points of view from its reporters and analysts.

This week, Williams has been making the rounds to make his case about his beliefs, and to promote Muzzled — in print interviews, on Fox News, on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show and other public radio programs.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.


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