'Shop Talk': Was NPR Right To Oust Juan Williams?

Tell Me More's weekly Barbershop segment discusses NPR's firing of Juan Williams over his remarks about Muslims on the Fox News Channel. Host Michel Martin talks with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sports writer Dave Zirin and columnist and author Reihan Salam.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

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 shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael; sportswriter for The Nation and edgeofsports.com Dave Zirin; National Review online blogger Reihan Salam - he's also an author - and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel.

Hey, fellas.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Blogger, National Review): Hello.

Mr. IZRAEL: DZ.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sports Writer, The Nation and edgeofsports.com): DZ.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: And A-train, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney): The rent is too damn high.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, and there's that. Well, it's like Ice-T said, be careful, you know, freedom of speech, but be careful what you say, brother.

Well, hey, Michel, I hear it's been pretty quiet over there at NPR this week, huh?

MARTIN: Not so much. Not so much. Not so much. Now, I assume you're referring to NPR's being at the center of - really, it is a media firestorm this week for the firing of longtime former host, former correspondent, senior news analyst Juan Williams. We talked about this earlier in the program. But if you're just joining us, Juan Williams was fired for comments he made at his other job - at FOX News - during an appearance on Bill O'Reilly's program, where he said that seeing people in quote- unquote, Muslim garb on airplanes made him nervous.

Now, he's talked about this, on ABC's "Good Morning America" today, with George Stephanopoulos. This is the exchange.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

Mr. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Host, "Good Morning America"): So, what do you think the issue is here? Do you think it's just that you're - the fact that you were working for Fox became too much trouble for NPR?

Mr. JUAN WILLIAMS (Journalist): I think - you know what? This is one of the things in my life that's just such a shock thing because I grew up, basically, on the left. I grew up here in New York City, you know. And I've always thought the right wing was the ones who were inflexible, intolerant. And now I'm coming to realize that the orthodoxy at NPR, if it's representing the left, it's just unbelievable that, you know - and especially, I think, for me as a black man to somehow, you know, say something that's out of the box, they find it very difficult. And I think that's right, George. I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me, that they were uncomfortable with the idea that I was talking to the likes of Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Wow. That's nauseating.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. Let's go to A-train first. Arsalan, you are the founder of the Muslimguy.com, and the former national legal director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR. What do you think about this?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, you know, when somebody starts out a statement by saying, look, I'm no bigot, they're probably going to end up saying something bigoted. You know, we've seen a spate of recent, you know, firings in the media with Rick Sanchez, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, you know, when it comes to, you know, our standards in determining, you know, group-based comments.

And, you know, I think that what we're dealing with here is, you know, another one of those instances, you know. He talked about how whenever he flies on airplanes, he gets nervous when he sees people in quote-unquote, Muslim garb and, you know, referencing the 9/11 attacks - which is interesting because neither the 9/11 hijackers, nor the failed shoe bomber, nor the failed underwear bomber ever wore any Muslim garb when committing their acts of criminal terrorism.

And so to conflate, you know, something that has to do with expressing religious freedom in terms of wearing attire - whether it's a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, a Sikh man keeping a turban, or a Muslim woman wearing the hijab or head scarf - conflating that with terrorism, and sort of casting aspersions on an entire demographic group in the United States, I feel, is greatly troubling. And that's why I supported NPR's firing of Juan Williams.

MARTIN: Wait. Well, that's the question, is it a firing offense? It could be troubling. It could not be based on the facts, but it's a feeling that people have. I mean...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. But...

MARTIN: If somebody - I mean, Jesse Jackson said, didn't he say something similar? If I'm walking down a dark street and I see footsteps and I see a young black man behind me, then I get nervous.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yes, he did. Right. The difference here...

MARTIN: He doesn't work for NPR, but the question is, is that a firing offense?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And not only - the difference is that Juan was a quote-unquote news analyst for NPR, and so his job was to analyze the news. He was not being paid as a commentator or a columnist, and so his job was to analyze the news on a fact basis. And so, again, when he makes an empirically incorrect statement about Muslim garb and tying that with terrorism when no...

Mr. SALAM: How is it an empirically incorrect statement...

Mr. IZRAEL: Hold on, Reihan, Reihan, Reihan. Hold on, Reihan. Let him get it in.

Mr. SALAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: As I stated, not one of the 19 hijackers on September 11th, nor the shoe bomber, nor the underwear bomber, ever was wearing Muslim garb, and so to conflate Muslim garb with an act of terrorism is sheer ignorance. That is an empirical fact.

Mr. IZRAEL: Reihan.

Mr. SALAM: I'll just say what Juan Williams said later on on the same program to Bill O'Reilly: Hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality and military funerals - very obnoxious - you don't say first and foremost, we've got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.

Throughout the rest of Juan Williams statement that we haven't generally heard, he repeatedly said that you should not castigate all Muslims as extremists, that there are far more good Muslims than bad Muslims, quote-unquote. He was trying to emphasize that fact. What he was saying was that it makes him personally uncomfortable - as a way of pivoting to another statement. What he was trying to do is to talk to a different kind of audience, and to let them know, hey, those of you who have this discomfort, I share that discomfort to some degree, but the truth is that you cannot paint all Muslims with the same brush.

I think that that is the truth about the statement, but I think that there were people who wanted to focus only on that first part of it and - taking it out of context in such a way as to, you know, portray Juan Williams as something that hes not.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, let's talk - can I talk about...

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

MARTIN: I just want to hear Reihan's conclusion there. So what's your conclusion? And Dave, I'd love to hear what you have to say. And Jimi, you too, I want to hear what you have to say.

Mr. SALAM: Well, my conclusion is very simple. I mean, this is something that happens to media figures of every stripe. You try to make a complex statement, you try to advance a complex idea, and it's very hard to do that. For example, when Jesse Jackson made his statement about young black men, he was not saying all young black men are actually criminals. That is absurd and Jesse Jackson, like all of us, knows that. I grew up in an urban neighborhood, and I certainly know that's absolute nonsense. But what he was saying is that, look, I'm a complicated person. There are many different aspects to my personality. There are impulses that I cant control. Barack Obama talked about the grandmother who raised him and about how she had some discomfort. Now, this was a woman who had a young black man at the center of her life, someone that she loved very dearly, but also someone who expressed this discomfort to him in a way that disappointed him and made him uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Okay. All right.

Mr. SALAM: But it's a reality of a lot of American families and a lot of American individuals.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah.

Mr. SALAM: The reality of Juan Williams' statement is effaced when we only take one part of it that was meant to be taken in a broader context.

MARTIN: Okay. Okay.

Mr. ZIRIN: The idea - yeah, Dave Zirin here. The idea that Muslims scare people is not a complex idea, and if I've learned nothing else from this whole thing, its that Islamophobia is now a lucrative, big business. Juan Williams got paid -$2 million contract with Fox at the end of this. And frankly, it makes me ill. Do you know that this Saturday in New York City, hundreds of people are marching on FOX in New York City. There is going to be a march of hundreds of people because of the Islamophobia that FOX has come to represent, and the bigotry that FOX has come to represent. And I think when it comes to Juan Williams, this is one of those cases where he had a moment of when in Rome. I mean, what he said on the O'Reilly show is said on FOX shows all the time. The difference is...

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay, check this out

Mr. ZIRIN: Excuse me. The difference is, is that he happens to be connected to an institution in NPR which unlike FOX, is an actual media organization with standards. That's what tripped him up.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? Check this out. NPR doesn't have enough diverse programming in-house or nurture enough diverse voices to just be firing people of color willy-nilly. It took seven days for CBS to fire Don Imus after a bit of a suspension. Now, you know, there seems to be like, a sliding rubric. I mean, there seems to be like, a sliding rubric for who can say what. And you know, I'm not going to go off on the fact that he was...

MARTIN: But Don Imus was fired, so what are you saying? They should've waited seven days to fire him? I don't think understand your point.

Mr. ZIRIN: Fired after seven days.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, my point is that, my point is my point is that, you know, they should have deliberated on it a little while longer than pulling the trigger the same night. You know...

MARTIN: Because he's black?

MARTIN: No, because...

MARTIN: He should've gotten more consideration because he's black?

Mr. IZRAEL: No. No, because its - no, because its fair. Not because he's black. You know, you can't be here today and Juan - tomorrow.

MARTIN: But that's how you started your statement, by saying that...

Mr. SALAM: Thank you so much for saying that. I really...

Mr. ZIRIN: Saying what?

Mr. SALAM: I really appreciate that...

Mr. ZIRIN: ...that they should have waited seven days before firing him?

Mr. SALAM: No.

Mr. IZRAEL: No. No. No.

Mr. SALAM: To hear the whole statement.

Mr. IZRAEL: They should've deliberated a little while longer. That's what I'm saying.

Mr. SALAM: Yeah. Absolutely.

Mr. IZRAEL: He was here today and Juan tomorrow. And that's no good.

Mr. ZIRIN: I'm saying, how could anybody have ever trusted...

MARTIN: Does anybody really believe he got fired for one statement?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. I don't believe that for a heartbeat. Not for a heartbeat.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Let's not forget, in January 2009, you know, he equated Michelle Obama with the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. You know, this is not a one-strike-and-you're-out sort of thing.

Mr. SALAM: Totally - total mischaracterization of what he said.

MARTIN: Well...

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. ZIRIN: I don't know why Reihan is so upset. He got paid. That's what this has resulted in. We've learned that Islamophobia and bigotry is big business, and there is...

Mr. SALAM: He was not expressing Islamophobia. He was expressing...

MARTIN: He really...

Mr. ZIRIN: He said he's scared of Muslim people in clothes. If that's not Islamophobia, you better buy a dictionary.

MARTIN: But don't you think some other people share that view?

Mr. SALAM: That's hilarious, my friend. What he said is, look, I am personally uncomfortable, but we can't paint all Muslims with the same brush. That was the whole statement.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Reihan, Reihan, if he...

Mr. SALAM: A subject and a predicate. It is one...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Do you think that if he had inserted blacks or Jews instead of Muslims, that we would be worrying about context and nuance and this greater discussion, or would it have - listen, the right wing has - Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin talking about free speech?

Mr. ZIRIN: FOX employees, by the way.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and...

Mr. SALAM: Jesse Jackson still has a terrific career in public life.

Mr. ZIRIN: Hold on.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. IZRAEL: Hold on a second. Hold on. To put a bow on this, I think these are hard conversations we have to have in the public sphere. I mean, they're not always going to be polite conversations, and they're not going to always be the tenor you want to hear - any of us - but we have to have these conversations, period. Period.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, but fine. And Juan Williams is going to be paid $2 million to have those conversations...

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask you this...

Mr. SALAM: It doesn't matter if he's getting paid or not. What matters is giving someone a chance to...

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

MARTIN: Okay, guys.

Mr. IZRAEL: One at a time. One at a time. One at a time.

MARTIN: The one thing we're going to stop doing is yelling. We're going to stop yelling.

Mr. ZIRIN: Sure.

MARTIN: We're going to stop yelling, because that doesn't really make anybody's life better. We were going to talk about the whole Anita Hill-Ginny Thomas phone call, but I get the sense that you want to continue to talk about that. Do you want to keep talking about this, or do you want to move on to that other issue?

Mr. ZIRIN: (Unintelligible) I'd like to talk about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: (Unintelligible) moving to some civil discourse. Please gentlemen, please?

MARTIN: So, okay, I think I made my point, Jimi.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, very well and in a quiet voice.

Mr. SALAM: I feel like there are two basic points here, one is that...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Reihan.

Mr. SALAM: ...he got paid so we can fire him without giving credit to the fact that he was making a larger statement.

MARTIN: No, I...

Mr. SALAM: And there are other people who are saying, we should listen to the whole statement and evaluate that.

MARTIN: Reihan, do you think - I think NPR management has made it clear that this was not one statement that resulted in this. Do you think it was?

Mr. SALAM: Do I think it was?

MARTIN: Do you think it was just this one issue?

Mr. SALAM: Well, to be honest with you, if it's not just this one statement, then that, I think, lends more credence to what Juan said. And I don't want to lend more credence to what Juan said because I actually think that NPR's management, in my limited experience, is very careful and cautious and deliberative about seeing to it that they are not biased. I think that there is a real, active attempt on that part, so I don't want to believe that its about just, you know, kind of another statement taken out of context, too. But again, Im not an expert. All I know is what I saw of the whole transcript of the program. And I think that taken, you know, taking all of that into consideration, I don't think that this particular statement merited even a reprimand, but...

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were having our weekly Barbershop conversation at greater volume than usual, with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist and author Reihan Salam, and sports writer Dave Zirin.

Dave, you wanted to get in this in your non-yelling voice.

Mr. ZIRIN: In my non-yelling voice. There is an irony at work - you like my non-yelling voice?

MARTIN: I do.

Mr. ZIRIN: In that when you have Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and now Juan Williams calling for NPR to be defunded, while at the same time Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, I don't know yet about Juan Williams, are supporting a senatorial candidate in Alaska, Joe Miller, who had a reporter handcuffed for asking him a question, and Arsalan very correctly mentioned Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, and we have to realize that right now, Muslims are the victim of a brutal double standard in this country when it comes to what's acceptable to say about Muslim people. We saw this around the ground zero mosque - which wasnt at ground zero, and wasnt a mosque - and what the people there dealt with, and some of the protests that took place, the Quran burning and the non-Quran burning, and the incredible media firestorm around a preacher who had a church of 40 people and the amount of air time that gentleman got. And there comes a point where I think we have to say, enough is enough. And I'm grateful that NPR drew a line.

MARTIN: Jimi, could you talk about - a little bit - something you talked about earlier, though? You did reference the fact of the lack of diversity in the programming at NPR - and I hope, you know, were doing our bit to contribute to that. But do you want to talk more about what you meant by that, and what role you think this plays in this?

Mr. IZRAEL: So who is going to replace Juan? Who got next? You know what I mean? It isn't - it's not as if there are a lot of black men on National Public Radio, or that National Public Radio nurtures and encourages other talents, other black male talents of color. So that's my question; who got next?

MARTIN: So...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Maybe you do.

Mr. IZRAEL: Maybe. Doubtful. But anything can happen, right?

MARTIN: What's the take-away from this, guys? What's the take-away, Arsalan?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, the take-away is that, you know, that there is a cottage industry where certain aspects of the media, you know, can take potshots at certain demographic groups and get away with it. If you make those same statements about other demographic groups, youll get canned, other ones...

MARTIN: But he did get but he did get fired.

Yeah. But then he got a $2 million contract the next day. I mean, you know...

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, Reihan, what's the take-away for you? What do you think?

Mr. SALAM: My take-away is that Juan Williams was trying to express an idea. He was trying to express the idea that there are lots of people who are trying to paint all Muslims with the same brush, and thats wrong. But he was also trying to say, look, I empathize with those of you who have this discomfort, but that is not the right way to behave, that is not the right way to think about an entire group of people. And I don't know Juan Williams. I don't know him from Adam. And you know, kind of, I don't care if he got, you know, kind of a $2 million contract, an $80 billion contract, or 20 cents. I just think that that statement was a statement that I think that a lot of people would understand. What he was trying to do is talk to people who do have this distrust. Do I think that distrust is appropriate? I don't.

You know, I grew up in a Muslim household, you know. I identify as a Muslim; it's an important part of my life; and I do think that bigotry against any group is a serious problem. But I also think that taking this statement out of context is very dangerous, because I think that the truth is that lots of people have complicated thoughts, and that you know, this type of program - whether it's cable news - and even if it's on a radio program like this one, where you really try to let people express complicated ideas, it's just very, very hard. And when you have people who are trying to kind of isolate part of your statement...

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. SALAM: ...to hang you, metaphorically, I think that it's really bad news for our culture.

MARTIN: Dave, did you - I understand. Thank you. I'm sorry to cut you off. Dave?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No, because time is the one thing that they're not making more of. Go ahead.

Mr. ZIRIN: I think given some of the sensitivities around this, first of all, that lynch metaphors are very inappropriate. And if I - Mr. Salam - I also think, if I could, that if I've learned anything out of this...

Mr. SALAM: Dave, that was a misstatement - that was a careless misstatement, and I apologize for that.

Mr. ZIRIN: Okay. FOX News, I think, is a very frightening entity in terms of its power and influence in this country. I think the fact that it's establishing itself proudly as a masthead of Islamophobia is a reason for people like Arsalan, Reihan and myself to actually agree not to appear on it until it tries to have more editorial balance when it comes to issues concerning Islamophobia.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. ZIRIN: And I understand why people are protesting it Saturday.

Mr. SALAM: I think that's a serious misrepresentation, for what it's worth.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Jimi, I'm sorry. We don't have time to hear from you. Maybe you'll blog about this for us and tell us more about what you think. And Dave Zirin is a sportswriter for The Nation and EdgeofSports.com. We wanted to hear about the NFL policy on concussions, but maybe this was more important today.

Mr. ZIRIN: I have a concussion right now.

MARTIN: So, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and the founder of themuslimguy.com. Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at Economics 21 and he writes the agenda blog for National Review. He was with us from New York. Jimi Izrael is the author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Gentleman, thank you all so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. SALAM: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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