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How Do You Feel About Juan Williams' Termination?

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How Do You Feel About Juan Williams' Termination?

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How Do You Feel About Juan Williams' Termination?

How Do You Feel About Juan Williams' Termination?

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Guests

Alicia Shepard, NPR ombudsman
David Folkenflik, media correspondent, NPR

Wednesday night, NPR terminated the contract of senior news analyst Juan Williams, following comments he made on the O'Reilly Factor. NPR felt his remarks were inconsistent with the company's editorial standards. Reaction to Williams' dismissal has been mixed.

NPR N, Host:

Tonight, we gave Juan Williams notice that we're terminating his contract as a senior news analyst for NPR News. Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years, and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret. However, his remarks on "The O'Reilly Factor" this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR. We regret these circumstances and thank Juan Williams for his many years of service to NPR and to public radio.

And here's some of what Juan Williams said on the Fox News Channel, this, during a conversation that addressed comments that Bill O'Reilly had made on "The View," where he directly blamed Muslims for the 9/11 attacks. Here's Juan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

JUAN WILLIAMS: Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. 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 a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

Now, I remember also, that when the Times Square bomber was at court - I think this is just last week, he said, the war with Muslims - America's war with - is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts. But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all, as President Bush did after 9/11, it's not a war against Islam. President Bush went to a mosque...

BILL O: Well, there isn't any theology involved in this at all...

: Later, Juan Williams went on to say that blaming Muslims as a group was foolhardy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

WILLIAMS: Wait a second, though, wait, wait, hold on, because if you said, what, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.

REILLY: But it's not...

: You can read NPR's reporting on the termination at our website, NPR.org, where you'll also find some 2,000 comments from our listeners about it. We wanted to give you another chance to weigh in. Did Juan Williams' comment crossed the line? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at website. That's in npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with NPR ombudsman, Alicia Shepard. And let me just remind you, her role at NPR is that of listener advocate. She's independent of the editorial structure at NPR News and joins us here in Studio 3A. Always nice to have you on the program.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Why, thank you.

: And here's one of the comments from our website. It's similar to many that are of now. Reese Newman(ph) wrote: I think you made a huge error by your action. Juan Williams is a fine American. And even though I often do not agree with his stance, I value his point of view. He makes me think deeper. I know not all Muslims are to blame for violence, but Juan has a right to voice his concerns without fearing the loss of his job. Please rethink your decision.

SHEPARD: Well, I'm not going to rethink the decision because it wasn't my decision to make. But I do think that there's a context missing from this, and that this is not an isolated incident. I joined NPR in October of 2007 and since that time, I would - it's without a doubt, Juan Williams has been the most controversial employee at NPR. And it's not because of what he says on NPR, it's because of his role on Fox.

And so when I look at this, stepping back, I think that probably the better thing for NPR to have done would've said, Juan, this situation is not working. It is no longer tenable for you to be a news analyst and keep your opinions to yourself on NPR and then go on Fox as a pundit and give your opinions, so choose.

: And do one or the other.

SHEPARD: Right.

: But a lot of people would say, wait a minute, he's got a First Amendment right to voice his opinion.

SHEPARD: He does and he has the right to work where he wants. And he has - if he chooses to work at NPR because NPR is saying this is the role we want for you - you can't go out, Neal, and do anything you want to another networks and say - I mean, it's a very unusual situation. And I think that this may have been the tipping point. That's all. There have been other instances - I have written about Juan before where he has caused problems for NPR by what he says on Fox News. Now he's often apologized, but I just think that the relationship no longer worked for NPR.

: And the NPR comment that his - that this was based on, what he said on Fox on Monday from the statement last night, that did not reference these previous...

SHEPARD: No, it did not. And I, you know, I am about to post something and I encourage people to go to npr.org/ombudsman, probably within the hour of this - this has been a moving story. I wrote something like night. And then I find myself updating it. Because it's interesting - Friday - Wednesday, when this came to the public attention, inundated - the ombudsman's office inundated with fire him, fire him, fire him. Thursday - how dare you fire him? So they're probably not the same people. But, boy, he crashed the system today for emails.

: I mentioned 2,000 comments before. I think there are...

SHEPARD: It's three...

: ...4,500 as we went to air. So I stood corrected on that. Let's get some callers on the line. And let's see if we can start with Mark, and Mark is with us from New Britain, Connecticut.

MARK: Thank you for taking my call, Neal. I'm a long time member at WNPR here in Connecticut. And I just want to come out in support of NPR's decision. I have long been uneasy with Mr. William's playing both sides of the fields here. NPR is still a news organization. Fox News is not a news organization. It's a political advocacy organization. The relationship was inappropriate, has been inappropriate for a long time. And I'm glad to see it end.

: Well, Mark, thank you very much for the call. But Alicia Shepard, that raises the question - Juan Williams is not the only NPR employee who makes comments on other people's - with - for other people's news organizations, including Fox.

SHEPARD: That's correct. Mara Liasson, long time national political reporter at NPR, also appears on Sunday - "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." It is a news show. I would shunt back and say people will draw a distinction between what happens after 7:00 at night on Fox, when the political punditry takes place with Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and the straight news show. Chris Wallace is putting out a show where they discuss things that happened and they try to have different viewpoints, and Mara is one of those. Now, Mara too had said things occasionally on Fox that have - she would be the second most controversial employee at NPR for me.

: There are also - Nina Totenberg appears on another programs. Not on Fox, but...

SHEPARD: Yes. And so I have often said - is it what Juan or Mara said, or where they said? And I think that's sometimes a valid question.

: Let's go next to Shaun(ph), Shaun is with us from Pleasant Valley in New York.

SHAUN: Hello.

: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

SHAUN: I am very distressed about what you've done to Juan. It's hard for me to speak of this because I find so much that is happening in our country today is so political - politically correct. You cannot express any opinion. Juan has been a voice on Fox News for an agenda other than what Fox presents. I often don't agree with Juan, but I certainly respect him for saying how he feels. He did not indict all Muslims whenever he made his statement. He simply said I honestly sometimes have a fear of people who represent themselves as only Muslim. And I think it was very unfair. I listened to the woman who was just speaking. I don't know who it was, because I've been on and off hold. But Juan, I believe, is a man of integrity, though I frequently disagree with him.

But what NPR has done is they have now said you no longer have a right to voice any opinion anywhere other than the NPR line. And that is unfair. And it is disloyal to a man who has worked very hard for that company for a long time. I applaud Fox for having Mara on, for having Juan on, because they do present a different viewpoint. And I've been a long time NPR listener, you know, and a long time supporter of public radio and public television. And I find it most disconcerting that because a gentleman spoke from his heart and was not saying that all Muslims are bad, he was just saying I get a little frightened, and I think he spoke for a lot of people.

: And I have to say - and Shaun, thank you very much for that. We appreciate it. I have to say that in a statement that he made on Fox today, Juan was - Juan Williams was clearly angry that he thought he had been described as a bigot and that he'd been fired because NPR thought he had made bigoted remarks.

SHEPARD: I don't think that was the case. I mean, I saw that Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard also said, does NPR think Juan is a bigot? I think - again, as I said earlier, I think it's just that the different roles that Juan played, of being a news analyst and just giving the facts and quick on his feet, being articulate about events, worked for NPR. But it didn't work for NPR to have him being more inflammatory. And many would say that what he said about Muslims on the airplanes was inflammatory and did not advance the debate.

I will ask this question rhetorically. I wonder what Juan would have said or how he would have reacted if a prominent journalist said, you know, every time I get on the bus and I see an African-American with a big afro and taziki, I get scared, I get nervous. It didn't seem to me to advance the debate at all about the role of Muslims in America.

: And a couple of other comments about this situation. And this from Mike Huckabee, who's been a guest on this program many times. This statement on Huck PAC: While I've often enjoyed appearing on NPR programs - I've been treated fairly and objectively - I will no longer accept interview requests from NPR as long as they're going to practice a form of censorship. Since NPR is funded with public funds, it is a form of censorship. It is time for the taxpayers to start making cuts to federal spending. I encourage the new Congress to start with NPR.

N: NPR defends First Amendment right, but will fire you if you exercise it. Juan Williams, you got a taste of left hypocrisy. They screwed up firing you.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Also with us is David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent. He's with us from our bureau in New York. And David, I know - well, first of all, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Sure.

: And I know you've been making calls around to get reaction from other people in the profession. What kinds of reactions are you getting?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in the profession you can see, particularly on the blogosphere, the reaction was fast and furious, even starting last night when the news broke and we tweeted about - I tweeted about it. I'm speaking here as a reporter, not representing the institution itself.

But, you know, there's a lot of questions people ask. You know, is this just some sort of tension between NPR and Fox? A question that Lisa has alluded to. People have said, you know, this is - has First Amendment implications. People said - suggested that NPR officials hadn't listened to the full context of the comments, as you played the second part of the tape where he said, you know, Bill O'Reilly shouldn't confuse all Muslims with extremists.

That said, you know, there are some interesting pushback. First Amendment doesn't mean you have the right to somebody else's microphone. It means that you have the right to say what you believe. And NPR's feeling - I got off the phone just a few minutes ago with our CEO, NPR's top official, Vivian Schiller. She said, you know, it really ultimately isn't what substantively Juan Williams said that she and Ellen Weiss, our head of news, objected to. It was the notion that he's expressing such strong personal opinions and has done so more than once over the years - a number of times - that the place of Fox, which rewards a strong expression of opinions doesn't coexist easily with NPR, where the idea is to analyze news events, but to - and in Schiller's characterization, have the job of securing the opinions of other people, of the guests that we bring on the show.

: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: And that therefore in a sense NPR analysts like Juan might, in a way, be crowding out the ability for others to express their views if people expect him to be the one to turn to for opinions. She says that's not appropriate for NPR. And in fact, I think there's a link to draw. NPR, just in the past week, has also gotten a lot of attention for an edict put out by officials saying members of the news staff should not observe the rallies about to be held in Washington, D.C. held by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the Rally to Restore Sanity, as Stewart calls it, or to, I guess, encourage fear in Colbert's...

: Keep fear alive, I think, yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: ...self-satirizing characterizations. Keep Fear Alive. And yet there is sort of a political component, where there's clearly some fun being made of Glenn Beck's rally in late August on the Washington Mall, you know, the Lincoln Memorial, and some notion that there is a political, shall we say, air around it even though Stewart himself disclaims any political intent.

And therefore, you know, there's this notion that right and left, on any side, NPR officials feel that the journalists at NPR get to exercise First Amendment rights so widely by having these microphones to speak to millions of Americans every day and to report on and talk through very contentious issues; it shouldn't be their opinions that we're looking for. That's the thoughts of NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller and of our vice president for news, Ellen Weiss.

: I am dumbfounded by his dismissal, one rational man with a foot in both camps. NPR mistake. This from DerekDee(ph): Yes, he's a journalist, not a pundit. And by being honest, he displayed his opinion - not what we expect. Overreaction, Shirley Sherrod all over again. That a reference to the NAACP official who was dismissed on the basis of an incomplete portion of her speech put in context, read very differently. This - go ahead, David?

FOLKENFLIK: I was just going to say, I thought it was also interesting, I spoke for a story that'll come up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in a couple hours. I spoke to an official with CAIR, that's the - by now well-known Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper. And one of the things he said is to have somebody like Juan Williams acknowledge that he too fears Muslims dressed in clearly religious or culturally signifying garb when he gets on airplanes, see fellow passengers, people who, as he put it, I think, primarily identify themselves as Muslim, that he sort of recoils from that.

What Hooper said is it seems to validate that opinion as legitimate. What Williams seemed, in his own way, to be perhaps suggesting was that it was a reaction he's not proud of but has to be acknowledged, given the truth of the, you know, jihadists, the self-identified Islamic extremists who plotted the 9/11 2001 attacks. But, you know, Hooper says to come from such a mainstream media source, somebody like that seemingly legitimizes that recoiling and therefore it was profoundly offensive to them.

: Just a few seconds left. Alicia Shepard, this is clearly not going away.

SHEPARD: No, it's not. And it'll be interesting to see whether or not it flips. I certainly am getting emails from people saying that they support NPR. But right now I would say that the tables have turned and the criticism isn't towards Juan Williams but is now towards NPR.

: NPR ombudsman Lisa Shepard, with us here in Studio 3A. David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, with us from our bureau in New York. As he mentioned, more coverage later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I suspect on MORNING EDITION tomorrow as well, David. So you've got a busy few hours in front of you.

FOLKENFLIK: Yes, sir.

: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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