NPR Fires Juan Williams, Journalists React

National Public Radio was widely criticized for firing news analyst Juan William for saying he gets nervous when seeing people in full Muslim garb on airplanes. He made the comments in an interview on Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor" and stressed that it is important to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists. To learn more about the journalistic ramifications, host Michel Martin speaks with Asra Nomani, author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” Richard Prince, author of "Journal-isms," an online publication about diversity issues in the media, and John Watson, associate professor of communications law and journalism ethics at American University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Today, we are going to talk about another controversy involving the media, ethnicity and ethics. Just recently on this program, we have talked about the firing of CNN anchor Rick Sanchez and former White House correspondent Helen Thomas over comments that each made in public forums that many people considered ignorant and even anti-Semitic. And the question was, what kind of dialogue crosses the line between legitimate commentary and bigotry - especially inappropriate for journalists to engage in.

Today's story is along those lines, but it hits even closer to home. It's about the decision by this network, NPR, to fire its longtime employee Juan Williams. Juan has been a host here, a correspondent and most recently, he has had the title of senior news analyst. And for long stretches of time, he's been one of the few consistent African-American males on the air here. And for a number of years, he's also been a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. And therein lies the issue.

He was fired Wednesday after comments he made about Muslims in an appearance on FOX News' "The O'Reilly Factor." Those comments and NPR's response to them has generated a controversy that has engulfed both networks and the blogosphere. For example, by midmorning today, some 15,000 messages have been blogged about this on NPR's home page.

Later in the program, we'll ask the Barbershop Guys to weigh in because they are also a group of journalists of color, who are often called upon to speak off the cuff about controversial topics. So we will hear what they have to say.

But first, we've called Asra Nomani, the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," and a scholar in the practice of journalism at Georgetown School of Continuing Studies. Also with us, Richard Prince, he's an editor at the Washington Post who writes an online publication called "Journal-isms," where he focuses on issues around diversity in the media; and John Watson, associate professor of communications law and journalism ethics at American University. And they're all here with me in the studio, and I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Writer, "Journal-isms"): Great to be here.

Professor JOHN WATSON (Communications Law and Journalism Ethics, American University): It's a pleasure to be here.

Professor ASRA NOMANI (Author, "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam"): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And I do have to say, this is a fairly complicated story, and it's hard to recount all of the facts and the back story. And frankly, it is hard to report on one's own organization, so we'll do the best that we can. I'm going to start with the comments that put NPR management over the edge. This is Juan Williams on Monday, responding to Bill O'Reilly's own controversial comments on a program called "The View," about Muslims and terrorism. Here's Juan.

(Soundbite of show, "The O'Reilly Factor")

Mr. JUAN WILLIAMS (Journalist): 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 was 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.

MARTIN: Now, we'll have to say there was a longer exchange, where he later went on in the same program to say that Muslims are being wrongly profiled and frequently scapegoated for the acts - for the actions of a few extremists. But NPR management issued a statement later, saying that his remarks on "The O'Reilly Factor" were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.

And so, I'd like to ask each of you your response to that. John Watson, I'll start with you.

Prof. WATSON: As I understand management's position, he was fired on a basis of professional ethics. As a news analyst, he's in a position very, very closely aligned with a news reporter, in the sense that his comments have to be based in accord with the fundamental, prime directive of journalism - which is, provide the people with information they can rely on in making decisions about issues that are important. If the bearer of these messages indicates a bias, any information she or he provides really can't be relied on.

MARTIN: So you think it was a legitimate firing.

Prof. WATSON: If it was purely based on ethics, I see it as a legitimate basis for some sort of punitive or corrective action.

MARTIN: Asra, what about you?

Prof. NOMANI: Well, you know, I see Juan Williams' firing as a window into a larger problem we have in America right now in our conversation about Islam. We've seen it from this summer's coverage of the quote-unquote, ground zero mosque controversy, the Quran burning story. You know, we are a nation that still doesn't know how to talk about Islam.

What I believe Juan Williams did was express, unfortunately, the position of many Americans in their distrust of Muslims. I am Muslim. My father's name has Muhammad in it. We would be profiled if we go through airports because, you know, I buy tickets at the last minute, and I fall into the classic profile that you have.

But I got to tell you, when I went to Great Falls Park the other day, and I saw a woman in an full-face veil and her husband had a little leather bag that wasn't looking like the picnic basket, I felt a little nervous. And there was a park ranger behind me who clearly, was on their tail.

What Juan Williams expressed, I believe, is the sentiment of many people and -including Muslims. Muslims profile each other all the time. When you walk into a mosque and you see other Muslims, you say, oh look, he looks like a jihadi. Or, that's a niqab, a woman who wears a full-face veil. It doesn't mean, you know, that we need to go to the point of civil liberties - you know - offenses, or anything like that.

But Juan Williams was basically, I think, having a commentary that is very true in America today. And I believe, unfortunately, that NPR short- circuited a conversation that we really need to be having.

MARTIN: Richard Prince, what do you say? Now - and you have a very detailed account, not just of this incident in your - public issue, but also a broader look at Juan Williams' career on your site. So based on that, what do you say?

Mr. PRINCE: I say that this whole incident is not just about what he said on FOX's O'Reilly show. It's the fact that I think Juan had become a headache that NPR didn't need anymore. This is not the first time something like this has happened. And they decided, you know, look, we're in the middle of a pledge drive for our local affiliates. People are deciding whether to give money. We don't need this.

And as John pointed out, we have distinctions between news analysts and opinion people. And as Vivian Schiller, the CEO, said, Juan is not supposed to be giving opinions even - well, not on NPR - and when he does it on other networks, it reflects on us. So we don't need this. We have our other priorities. We've got a pledge drive to conduct. We have other things to talk about.

MARTIN: But where's the line, though? Where's the line? I mean, my commentary is on Monday, "Can I Just Tell You?"

Mr. PRINCE: Yes.

MARTIN: I very often use the first-person singular. I talk about how things strike me. You know, I don't believe I engage in sort of bigoted speech, but I do put out my own views - it is labeled as commentary. But I have to say, O'Reilly's program is clearly commentary.

Mr. PRINCE: Right.

MARTIN: So what's the line?

Mr. PRINCE: Well, your show is not - you're not in the same category as a reporter would be for NPR, who has to go out and, you know, and give the illusion of objectivity. So I wouldn't put that in the same category.

MARTIN: But why isn't he in the same category as me?

Mr. PRINCE: As Juan?

MARTIN: Yeah. Why - isn't he essentially doing what I do, but full time? I mean, I am conveying information. I'm inviting guests. I'm discussing their views. I'm trying to offer them platforms to do so. Why isn't he doing the same thing I'm doing, only doing it in other places?

Mr. PRINCE: Well, the last part, in other places, is very important. He's doing it on FOX News, which encourages a different kind of environment that NPR does. When - you know, when being loud and argumentative and all that is encouraged in one venue and discouraged in another, then you've got sort of a split personality, and that's what caused the problem. You can't serve two masters, basically, and that's what happened in Juan's case.

MARTIN: But why can't you, as a journalist? Is it because the character of these institutions is so different? I mean, I must tell you that NPR objects vehemently to the notion that it is a liberal outlet, per se. And FOX News, you know, considers itself - as we all know - fair and balanced even though I think many people believe that it has a profound right-word tilt in its coverage, and certainly in its analysis and its opinion pages. But why can't a person who's an honest broker perform in any venue? Maybe John Watson, perhaps you'd like to take that question.

Prof. WATSON: I don't see a two-level distinction among people who participate in the mass media. I see news journalists, news reporters. I see news analysts, and then I see commentators. Okay. And there is a separate set of ethical directives for all three. Analysts and news-based journalists pretty much follow the same ethical principles.

Commentators are different significantly because they are permitted and encouraged to show a bias or a position. Okay, so confusing a commentator with an analyst is incorrect because different ethical principles apply. As I understood it, Juan Williams was a news analyst. And as a news analyst, your biased, if it appears publicly, is unethical. Whereas if you're a commentator, your bias is what you trade on.

MARTIN: So what about race? What about the aspect of race? Does that play into it, Richard? Since that's your bailiwick, and you cover diversity - you cover ethics and so forth. You cover diversity in the news business. Do you think race played a part of it? Juan seems to think that it did.

Mr. PRINCE: Well, I think race is always a part of a lot of these discussions. I think it's disingenuous, however, to say that there was a racial element here and not at FOX. I mean, FOX is hardly an exemplar of diversity in terms of its news and so forth.

MARTIN: So, how do you think race played a role in this? I mean, Juan seems to feel that he is under a particular spotlight because he's an African-American male. And I have to tell you, he's a very polarizing figure within the building and every place he's ever worked, in part because he's been extremely supportive of many of the young African-Americans. He's a very highly visible figure as an African-American. Sometimes he's the only African-American male on the air.

On the other hand, there are people who feel that he's very manipulative in these matters. I think that that's not a secret - that he's a very polarizing figure, that they feel that he speaks one way in one venue, and another way in another. So what is your view of that?

Mr. PRINCE: Well, my view of that is that if there were more African-American males at NPR on the air, Juan would not have been such a big issue. But because he was the only one for such a long time - NPR's now hired another African-American male journalist - he stands out so much. And it does become - he does become an example of - a representative of African-American men. And that makes race an issue.

MARTIN: Asra, what do you think about this and the role of ethnicity, for example, in this conversation?

Prof. NOMANI: You know, what's of interest to me is that, you know, I believe religion is an issue in this debate. I don't think we can ignore the fact that Juan Williams was fired after a campaign began earlier this week by an organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is a nonprofit organization, but they're in the midst of their own fundraising drive. And their campaign is to launch a movement against Islamophobia in America. And so this promotes their agenda also. And there is very much a thought police happening inside of America.

MARTIN: Well, hold that thought because we're going to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll have more on this conversation. We have a couple more minutes to talk about it. As we said, it's a very rich and difficult and complex topic. We're with Asra Nomani of Georgetown University, and an author; Richard Prince of "Journal-isms," it's an online publication that covers issues of diversity in the media; and Professor John Watson, who addresses issues of journalism ethics at American University.

You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

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

In a just a few minutes, we'll talk about the rise of Republican women this election cycle.

But first, we are continuing our conversation about Juan Williams' firing from NPR News for comments suggesting that it made him nervous to fly with people wearing - as he put it - Muslim garb, that highlights that aspect of his -identity.

We're talking about this with Asra Nomani. She is a prominent Muslim author and journalist. She teaches journalism at Georgetown University, and she's the author of several books; Richard Prince, the author of "Journal-isms," that's an online publication that covers diversity issues in the media; and John Watson, associate professor who teaches journalism ethics at American University.

Before we took the break, Asra, you were saying that, you know, that there are - interest groups have an interest in this.

Prof. NOMANI: Right. And you know, we want to sometimes censor people's fears as bigoted or inappropriate. But I think it's more important for us to discuss them honestly. I believe, as a nation, we are still dealing with the trauma of September 11th. We have gone - swung both ways, from just really hunkering down to lashing out.

This summer, in response to the quote-unquote, ground zero mosque debacle, there was a lot of anger and a lot of fear expressed. And I believe it's a very real thing that we need to handle as a - media professionals, also.

MARTIN: That makes sense to me, but what about a prominent person in a workplace who expresses a comment like this? And we have Muslim employees. And who - I don't feel like I can speak for all of them, but I can speak for some to say, well, does that mean he's afraid of me? What are the implications of that for a news manager, particularly someone who represents the organization?

Prof. NOMANI: If he has a fear of them - and I imagine he probably doesn't on an elevator in NPR. But that fear, I think, is something that is not just his responsibility, but our society's responsibility. And I believe that his thoughts are a mirror on what is a truth in our country. And for us to just admonish, punish and demonize people for expressing honestly a very real societal problem that we've got - it is not going to go away - we're just short-circuiting our own growth, I think, as a nation.

MARTIN: And to that point - and there's another aspect of the story that I feel I must mention in the spirit of fairness, is that our CEO, Vivian Schiller, made some comments yesterday afternoon in a public forum, saying that if Juan Williams had these feelings about Muslims, that he should take them up with either his psychiatrist or a publicist. And then she shortly thereafter apologized for speaking inappropriately about that. So John Watson, your final thought about...

Prof. WATSON: I have several thoughts. The first one is that whenever someone says, I'm not a bigot but - I know what's going to come out next is going to be reason for me to believe this person is a bigot. I don't know Juan Williams, and I would assume he isn't a bigot, but he's given me reason to suspect he is a bigot. And if I were a Muslim, I would have reason not to trust anything he says beyond that point that relates to me.

MARTIN: Richard Prince, a final thought - and I'm particularly interested in your comments about - you know, you said that this is cumulative. This obviously isn't just, you know, nobody gets fired for one thing. But I am curious about whatever final thought you have and also, what you think we should learn from this going forward.

And I do also think - I should mention that FOX News has extended a rather lucrative contract to Juan Williams. It's been reported in the $2 million range over three years by several reputable news outlets. And that also raises interesting questions - that if his commentary were as welcomed there as it is, why was this offer not extended further? So anyway, your final thoughts.

Mr. PRINCE: Well, Juan comes out a big winner here with $2 million. That, to me, is very sad - that this has happened. Number two, Juan's not here to mention this, but I think his point was that not that he was - that he was not a bigot, that he was confronting this, and that it was wrong of him to think this way. And number three is, a Muslim journalist told me the hijackers of 9/11 were wearing western clothes, not quote-unquote, Muslim garb.

MARTIN: So, what should we learn from this going forward?

Mr. PRINCE: We should learn a number of things. Number one, you can't trust soundbites. Number two, watch what you say, especially if you're in this business. And number three, you can't serve two masters.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we'll see. Richard Prince writes the online publication "Journal-isms." It covers diversity issues in the media for the Maynard Institute. It's hosted by the Maynard Institute. John Watson is an associate professor of communication law and journalism ethics at American University. And Asra Nomani is a journalist and the author of - most recently - "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," and a professor at Georgetown University. I thank you all so much for joining us today.

Prof. NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. PRINCE: Great, thanks for having us.

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