'Shop Talk': Is NPR Criticism Fair?

The latest controversy involving NPR executives and Thursday Congressional hearing into the "radicalization" of Muslim Americans are two topics under discussion in the weekly Tell Me More "Barbershop." Host Michel Martin speaks with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Ruben Navarrette and the journalist Kevin Williamson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, deputy managing editor of the National Review, Kevin Williamson and columnist Ruben Navarrette.

Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Author): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How are we doin'?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney, Editor): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. KEVIN WILLIAMSON (Deputy Managing Editor, National Review): Good, thanks.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): Doing good, man. Hey.

Mr. IZRAEL: K-dub, what's up, man?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Token middle-American, gun-toting angry person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, snap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Clinging to religion.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Well...

MARTIN: Well, we got - we have some of those attributes represented - just distributed differently.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Angry, gun-toting.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Middle American. We got that.

Mr. IZRAEL: Let's just get things started, right? Because it will be hard to talk about the news this week and not mention what's going on at NPR. So, let's start there. Let's start there. You know, this is going to be leaking oil from the top.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Right?

MARTIN: Let's not. But...

Mr. IZRAEL: From Juan Williams' firing last fall, to getting caught in a sting video that was released last week.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Woo, Michel, tough days.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know...

Mr. IZRAEL: Michel, you need a loan or something? I got you faded.

MARTIN: Well, it was actually this week. It was released this week, and how am I doing? How am I doing? Well...

Mr. IZRAEL: How are you doing?

MARTIN: Well, you know...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's good. It's all good. You're still here. It's interesting, though.

MARTIN: Yes, that's true. It's just, well, you know, well, just for people who aren't aware of what we're talking about here, that two NPR executives were forced to resign this week. First, the - it started with the senior vice president of fundraising, Ron Schiller. And he was, as you said, captured on this video, which was, you know, put on by James O'Keefe, who's a kind of a conservative provocateur, you know, filmmaker who is responsible for these other videos of, you know, ACORN and Planned Parenthood and, well, another group.

Anyway, so, he was captured making these ridiculous, bigoted, unprofessional remarks about conservatives and the Tea Party and so forth. So he resigned and then - he was already on his way out the door, by the way. I think that's worth mentioning. And then in the wake of that, that our CEO, Vivian Schiller, had to resign.

And for people who have not heard this, I'll just play a little bit of it so you can hear what we're talking about. It's a little hard to hear, but here it is.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Mr. RON SCHILLER: There's a real anti-intellectual move on the part of a significant part of the Republican Party.

MARTIN: So if you can't hear it, he's saying that there's a real anti-intellectual move on the part of a significant part of the Republican Party. He went on to say the Tea Party movement is what, seriously racist. He makes -anyway, so there you go. That's it.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Ruben. Ruben. What...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: We're going to pitch it right to you, bro.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'll tell you what - yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Because is this, wait, is this dirty pool, or is this true colors revealed?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: This is true colors revealed.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And, unfortunately - yeah, I mean, you know, when people are caught in a tough spot, it's always easier to blame somebody else. If the guy hadn't been there taping these people, this stuff wouldn't come out. But he didn't put the words in their mouth. And they did say some things that were inappropriate. I don't even think this is so much about - the pushback at NPR is so much about defending the honor of the Tea Party, frankly. You've got to understand the whole context of what Steve Schiller said.

MARTIN: Ron Schiller.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Oh, I'm sorry, Ron Schiller. He's sitting down there, trying to get funding and schmoozing potential funders who are presenting themselves as very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. And at one point, they actually joke that - they nickname or call NPR National Palestinian Radio. And he's not laughing, but somebody who's with him, Betsy - what's her name? I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Liley.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: OK. Is seen - is laughing on the tape, as if that's funny. A lot of people in the Jewish community, I would imagine, didn't think that was so funny. And, also, he makes this claim that got Rick Sanchez into trouble at CNN, that somehow, you know, Jews control the newspapers in America, in the United States. And that is not something - I am becoming incredibly, increasingly, should I say, sensitive to the concerns of my Jewish friends who keep saying: Why is this a constant theme that people bring up? You're trying to fundraise, and you use us as a pinata. So there's lots of things that he said and lots of groups that he offended in this very short snippet of tape. It wasn't just about the Tea Party.

MARTIN: Well, who disagrees with that? Who disagrees that that was offensive, bigoted, stupid? Who disagrees that that's the case?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well...

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Well, I say God bless this guy for having said it.

Mr. IZRAEL: K-dub, go ahead.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Because, you know, that sort of ignorance and contempt, about, you know, people in Middle America being rubes and racists and driven by hatred and religious fundamentalism and all that sort of stuff, that is the cultural soul of American liberalism, and I wish more liberals would talk like that. Tell us what you really think. Be who you are. We'll be who we're going to be. We'll meet in the marketplace of ideas and have it out. But don't be taking public money while you're doing it.

MARTIN: Well, let me just point out - well, I'll just say one thing about that, because that is a very legitimate issue to debate. But here's a guy who was here for 18 months, had nothing to do with the newsroom, is not a journalist, and I don't know that that's reflective of the culture of the newsroom. I mean, if somebody in the advertising department in a commercial broadcast entity had these comments, would somebody be saying well, see, that's what they all think? I don't think so. I mean somebody that...

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, Michel...

MARTIN: I mean, if somebody who sold ads for the National Review...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He should not represent them.

MARTIN: Well, that's...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He should not represent NPR. I mean...

MARTIN: And he doesn't.

Mr. IZRAEL: If he worked in the mailroom...

MARTIN: He is gone.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well...

MARTIN: But does anybody say that was right? See, my point is does anybody say that that's right? Nobody is defending this. Nobody is saying, yeah, well. No one.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, the other shoe to drop is when Vivian Schiller lost her job, it became clear that this woman - and we saw this really played out with the Juan Williams incident, where she went before a speech later and said, you know, this issue with Juan is between him and his psychiatrist. Nobody's going to - no Fortune 500 company or Fortune 100 company is going to snap up Vivian Schiller tomorrow because of her astute management skills. Okay, this is not somebody who has proven herself to be a very good manager, and NPR is probably better off without her.

MARTIN: And she's gone, too.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-Train...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, she's gone - it's good that she's gone, but apparently, you know, again, this is how the thing sort of bubbled up from the bottom, because this wasn't imposed by the right wing. This was something coming unraveled from within.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Yeah. If someone, you know, who is the CEO of General Electric came out and said some sort of, you know, crazy, nasty, racist or anti-Semitic thing, people would legitimately ask: Is this something that reflects the culture of General Electric? You know, for a non-newsgathering organization, it would be much less controversial, I think. But, you know, there is this - the whole sort of artificial thing, well, it's not really our culture, because he's not really a journalist or something like that, he's a senior executive in your firm.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. If the guy who sold ads for the National Review was captured on tape saying something ridiculous, would you own it? Would you say, oh, absolutely? Yes, I agree with you. His comments were ridiculous.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: At a meeting with clients? Yeah.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and I...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Arsalan.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Let's also, you know, two things. Let's also not forget that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes called NPR people, quote, "Nazis." And when the Anti-Defamation League asked for an apology, he just apologized, and he's still cold chillin' at Fox News.

The second thing I want to look at more is the future of public broadcasting. You know, for the $164 million budget of National Public Radio, only about two percent of it is based on the federal funds. What's more important are member stations around the country, and, you know, the future of the federal funding that is going to keep these member stations alive. You know, presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, they all have tried to gut public broadcasting in the past. And so for me, this is just a small microcosm of the larger paradigm of the future of public broadcasting today.

MARTIN: Well...

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

MARTIN: Sorry, there - Jimi, you want to stay on that?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: All the more reason that in those member stations...

Mr. IZRAEL: Well...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: All the more reason that you should be sensitive to the concerns of folks in those member stations. If you're a Jewish person listening in Boston or someone who's Palestinian who's listening someplace else, if you have these concerns about stuff that's coming out and the way that it's bubbling out this controversy, I guess that's where the problem comes from. He just offended a whole wide worth of people.

MARTIN: Which is why he's gone.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: And the very irony about the funding for the member stations is everyone always says, well, it's these rural stations that really need the support...

MARTIN: It's true.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: ...the rural stations where these people are, you know, gun-toting middle-American, ignorant backward hicks who, you know, without the miracle of public support and public tax dollars for broadcasting...

Mr. IZRAEL: K...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: ...would just be left to their own crazy devices.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, K-Dub? You know what, K-Dub?

MARTIN: I don't believe anybody says that. I just think - I mean, I'll just tell you, he doesn't speak for me.

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay.

MARTIN: He doesn't speak for anybody that I work with. I have - that's all I have to say about it. I just think that he does not represent my views in any way or anyone I have ever worked with here, that I'm aware of.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, Michel, you know what?

MARTIN: And I just - I'm sorry - I'm disgusted. But it's not - go ahead.

Mr. IZRAEL: Let's talk about why NPR has become a target, because for years, it's come off like this private playground where all the cool kids could play, but all others are welcome as long as they sing along and keep their distance. Now...

MARTIN: I don't agree with that.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, okay, but doesn't your...

MARTIN: But that's a longer conversation than we have for today.

Mr. IZRAEL: Fine. Okay.

MARTIN: If you want to talk - I mean, I get it. I get it. But, go ahead Jimi, finish your thought. I mean, I'll just say, we have other things that we want to talk about, but...

Mr. IZRAEL: I'm saying look, at the end of the day there may a lot of diverse voices and divergent views expressed in aggregate, but it can sound like a tent full of granola eaters leafing through the newspaper at any given moment. You know, NPR may, in fact, be a news organization, but it sounds a lot like it's left-to-center at any moment in time. And that's what's made it a target.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, Jimi, Jimi, Jimi, listen, aside...

MARTIN: Or maybe it's made up of - well, go ahead. Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Aside from the diversity issue of diversity of thought, Vivian Schiller, when she appeared before National Public Radio, okay, and - oh, excuse me. I'm sorry, the National Press Club, and she gave a talk to the National Press Club, she fielded a question about diversity, another kind of diversity, racial diversity at NPR. And it's a difficult question. It's an important question. And you could assess for yourself whether you thought she gave that question adequate treatment when she talked about, basically, you know, it's better than it used to be, but not as good as it could be.

I just don't think that that kind of leadership is adequate, given the huge demographic changes that are upon us, and I think that the new person who comes in, whoever it is, I would hope would be much more sensitive to that kind of question and answering it in a suitable way. So...

MARTIN: And I hope that the leaders of other media organizations are similarly asking themselves that question, no matter their political stripe...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...or orientation.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Roger Ailes.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No doubt. No doubt. Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: So, if you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop segment. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Ruben Navarrette and Kevin Williamson, who's the deputy managing editor of the National Review.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Now, moving on to New York Congressman Pete King's hearing this week titled: The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and the Community's Response. Now, others are calling this McCarthy-esque. I want to get your response on this, Michel. But first, we have some tapes of the hearings, right?

MARTIN: Well, you know, I have two tapes, two clips for you. One is one that I think a lot of people have heard. So, Keith Ellison, the Democrat from Minnesota who was the first Muslim-American congressman, he was telling the story of Salman Hamdani. He was a first responder who died on 9/11 who is a Muslim-American. So we don't, okay, well, we've heard - I think a lot of people have heard that clip, where he became very emotional in describing the story of what happened to Mr. Hamdani. And I'm not really - I would - we have asked him, we called his office to ask gee, you know, what is it that made you so emotional? And maybe Arsalan knows.

But I also have another clip that didn't get as much attention, from Melvin Bledsoe. He's one of the witnesses who was called to testify. He says his son Carlos Bledsoe was radicalized in Tennessee, and he went on to kill a military recruiter in Little Rock, Arkansas. And I'll just play a short clip from that part of the testimony. Here it is.

Mr. MELVIN BLEDSOE: In Nashville, Carlos was captured by, best described, hunters. He was manipulated and lied to. That's how he made his way to Yemen. Carlos was hoping to go there for a chance to cross over to Saudi Arabia and visit Mecca. But these hunters had other plans for him. They set him up, to tell him that he could teach English in a British school in Aden in the south of Yemen. This school turned out to be a front, and Carlos ended up in a training camp run by terrorists.

MARTIN: So I think this was just some powerful testimony on a number of points of view at the hearings yesterday. That you just heard was Melvin Bledsoe. He also apologized to the families of those his son shot in 2009.

So, Jimi, there you go.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, this is a great country that embraces religious freedom, so I'm distressed to see all the hysteria around what is, at its core, a beautiful religion. By the same token, I don't know how or if we can stop radicalization. But villainizing Muslims is not the answer. Ruben, help me out here.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Oh, very quickly, because I'm anxious to hear Arsalan's perspective. I think the thing that's significant about these hearings, they're a God-awful precedent, a God-awful tradition, actually, is being continued. If you look out throughout the history of the country, you have a country that's been around for 235 years, but there is this period in our history that's really ugly, a 50-year span between 1880 and 1930, and historians refer to it as the Americanization movement. And it was an attempt to center in on particularly German immigrants and force them to literally kiss the flag, to prove their loyalty, to prove their love for this country, to prove that they were just as patriotic as somebody else.

And so I think you can talk about McCarthyism all you want, but the more effective parallel is to say this is a very old story in American history. It's an ugly, sad chapter, and Peter King is leading us down there again. This notion somehow that Muslim-Americans by virtue of being Muslim-Americans have to prove their loyalty and reassure people like Peter King is very, very distressing.

Having said that, I will say there's one aspect of this that made me cringe, okay? And I say this as the son of a law enforcement officer, and my dad was a cop for 37 years: If I find out that there's any truth to this charge that Muslim-Americans in some cities in America have not been cooperating with FBI agents or who have been thwarting attempts by the FBI to get at anti-terrorisms cells, that's a different story to my mind. That is something that's going to be very, very hard for Muslim-Americans to excuse away. So I think that's the only valid thing I heard from the hearings. The rest of it was just some very familiar historical garbage that we could have done without.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-Train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, Congressman Keith Ellison is a close friend of mine, and has actually been on the Barbershop several times and, you know, obviously...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yes, he has.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...it was very emotional for millions of Muslim-Americans who watched what happened. For me personally, I have actually debated Peter King on MSNBC before. So, you know, for me, I'm just going to bring up a few points for people to keep in mind. You know, Peter King has actually gone on the record and said that there are, quote, "too many mosques in America," that, quote, "80 to 85 percent of mosques are run by extremists," and that American Muslims are, quote, "an enemy living amongst us."

You know, we had the Los Angeles Times, the Philly Inquirer, The New York Times, the Miami Herald, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, and most importantly, proud conservative Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic, who called Peter King, quote, "a terror-sponsoring McCarthyite."

This really - a Pennsylvania editorial noted that this was the first time in history that a religious minority had a congressional hearing dedicated to it. And so for me and millions of people around the country, you know, Joseph McCarthy is dancing a jig in his grave today.

MARTIN: Kevin, what do you think?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Well, I think McCarthy was right, actually. I think if you look at the record of the people in Congress who were investigating communists in America back in the '30s, '40s and '50s, they were right on the substance, for the most part. So I'm not sure that McCarthy is the best comparison there. You know, did it have to be King hosting these hearings? I mean, this is a guy who pretty clearly can't tell a terrorist from a non-terrorist because he's been a huge fan of the IRA for ever and ever, apologized for them, apologized for them, and apologized for them...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Fair point. Fair point. Right.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: ...for years and years. I wish he wasn't chairman of the Homeland Security Committee for obvious reasons, because he doesn't understand the issue, I don't think, very well. At least he's easily blinded by when it comes to his own ethnic loyalties. So, you know, obviously, Islamic terrorism's a huge problem facing the country. The Homeland Security Committee ought to be talking about it. If there's a question with radicalism among Muslims in America, which if you've ever been in an American prison, you know there is, yeah, we should be talking about it. We should we be looking about it. And the fact is that, you know, we were calling American Muslims to tell us their stories, tell us their insights, get their information, because they've got the useful local information.

One other thing though, by the way, I wanted to point out, that the story that Ellison told about...

MARTIN: Just one minute, Kevin.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: ...about Hamdani is not true, as far as I can tell. National Review looked into this yesterday. We can't find any evidence that this guy was painted as a terrorist or anything like that. He was, in fact...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: In the New York Post he was.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Yeah. That Post story has, you know, one anonymous source saying maybe something. You know, it's pretty weak stuff for the sort of story that he was talking about.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: They published it though, man. It was part of the historical record, and what Keith was reading from was from The New York Times. So, I mean, this was fact.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And I think the reason Keith reacted this way - I think the reason the congressman reacted this way is because it's very, very sensitive. And speaking as a Mexican-American who is constantly asked, you know, prove your loyalties. Are you loyal to Mexico or to the United States?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's a very old story, and I think that what the congressman was saying was, listen, for somebody who actually gave his life in this effort to be judged by people who didn't, who ran away from the flames instead of into the flames, he says that's obscene. It's obscene on its face. And I applaud him. I applaud his performance. I think it was right.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that whatever the hearings were meant to do on the substance, the fact is we did get some compelling testimony about the way - how seriously people do take this country and how much they do value their citizenship. And I think it was very moving, even if painful for - so unfortunately, we don't have time to talk about March Madness. We'll talk about that next week.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group and CNN.com. He was with us from San Diego. Kevin Williamson is the deputy managing editor of the National Review and author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism." He was with us from our bureau in New York. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and the founder of themuslimguy.com. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thanks, everybody.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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