It’s been eight months since Juan Williams touched off one of those overwrought media tempests. The jolt to the news ecosystem came when Williams told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he felt a certain unease when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on airplanes.
Muslim activists cried foul, a modest brawl ensued. It escalated into a full-on slam-dance when NPR, which employed Williams as a news analyst, fired him. Even a lot of the radio network’s insiders acknowledge today that management acted peremptorily, canning Williams without a hearing.
Now Williams fires back with “Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate,” a book that offers his side of the controversy, along with an extended polemic on the need for free speech. “Muzzled” scores some righteous points about the need for an honest national dialogue. It also has Williams, wrapping himself in the “cloak of victimhood” that he has so scorned in others.
Williams, 57, insists his book is not just about him. “We need to protect a free-flowing, respectful national conversation in our country,” he writes, asserting that “political correctness” makes that impossible.
What gets lost in the book, as in previous accounts of the controversy, is the more complex and textured history of Williams as a public radio personality. Most of the people in the room at NPR said his dispute with the radio network had much more to do with his tone and preparation than the right-left political divide that the commentator insists triggered his demise.
Although the book resurrects the briefly momentous conflict of last fall, the DEFCON 2-level ramifications have receded into their proper proportion, as these things usually do. NPR and its member stations still get a portion of their budget from the U.S. Treasury. Like the Postal Service, public radio can be loathed and have its funding threatened in concept, but in reality it turns out the folks back home are quite fond of their local member station. And Williams’ profile — he’s a full time commentator now on Fox — has never been higher. We should all be so muzzled.
The ruckus actually had its roots in an appearance that Fox’s O’Reilly made last year on ABC’s “The View,” in which the combative Fox personality said he opposed the Islamic community center in Manhattan, “because Muslims killed us on 9/11.”
That spurred a sharp rebuke by a couple of the “View’s” hosts and a subsequent attempt by O’Reilly to prove that his remarks had not been extreme. Williams served as his wing man on the issue. After describing his occasional trepidation about Muslims in the sky, Williams told O’Reilly: “We don’t want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy.”
A couple of days later, NPR news boss Ellen Weiss fired Williams. She explained that Williams had violated an NPR prohibition against staffers, even analysts, offering personal opinions. The problem with that stance, as I wrote in a column at the time, was that other NPR staffers had offered opinions on Fox, without repercussions. It seemed the radio network had stifled the very kind of discussion on diversity that many, including President Obama, had tried to promote.
Williams liked what I wrote so much he quoted it in “Muzzled.”
But just because NPR fired Williams hastily, and for the wrong reasons, doesn’t mean there weren’t serious problems between the radio network and its one-time star.
Williams had already become an ineffective and diminished figure at NPR well before the firing — a fact that got lost in all the hoo-hah last year. He would blame that on executives who thwarted him mostly, in his opinion, because of their displeasure that he had gone to work as a commentator for the conservative standard-bearer, Fox. He argues in “Muzzled” that NPR’s news bosses demanded liberal orthodoxy and wouldn’t tolerate dissent.
But many of his co-workers at the radio network had been displeased with Williams for some time. There were editors and reporters who didn’t like to work with him, because they felt he often wasn’t adequately prepared for the subjects of the day. Williams wanted to be more pundit than reporter, they believed, desiring to bring something like the wide-open rat-a-tat-tat of the cable bazaar to the staid academy that is public radio.
Some of Williams’ flights of fancy infuriated NPR co-workers and many listeners. When he misstated Gen. David Petraeus’ position on the possibility of sending U.S. troops to Iran, the military almost kicked NPR’s entire reporting team out of Iraq, even though Williams made the statement on Fox.
Although he once hosted the network’s national program, “Talk of the Nation,” by last fall Williams had been reduced to part-time status, his salary reduced and just four appearances per month on NPR guaranteed. Many insiders now concede management should have just let him quietly fade away when his contract expired.
I tried to get Williams to respond to all of this, but my calls to Fox News representatives were not returned.
Proving that it still knows how to (as Jon Stewart once said) bring a tote bag to a knife fight, public radio this week greeted Williams with open arms. The departed analyst has appeared on multiple public radio programs this week, both local and national. NPR features his book prominently on its reading page.
Williams has talked about the book on Fox, which could have bid for Williams’ full-time services years ago. But it seems he became irresistible as a Fox contributor — worthy of a reported $2 million over three years — only when the network could present him as a living, breathing symbol of the radical perfidy of the left-wing media.
So the silenced man continues his promotional tour. He got a warm welcome this week from Stewart on the “Daily Show.” If Williams can be thus “Muzzled,” the man appealing for tolerance while starring on hyper-partisan Fox, let the year of the non sequitur reign. Why not a John Boehner tell-all, “No Tears,” or the Beyoncé concert tour, “Ugly Me.”