In 'Muzzled,' Juan Williams Tells His Side Of The Story The journalist Juan Williams is out with a new book this week. In it, he makes the case that his acrimonious termination last fall by NPR is part of a larger and ominous pattern of suppressing undesired voices.
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In 'Muzzled,' Williams Tells His Side Of The Story

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In 'Muzzled,' Williams Tells His Side Of The Story

In 'Muzzled,' Williams Tells His Side Of The Story

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. The journalist Juan Williams is out with a new book. In it, he makes the case that his firing last fall by NPR was part of a pattern of suppressing unwelcome opinions by the network. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik recently sat down with Juan Williams, and he has this report.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The overall theme of the book "Muzzled" is that reasonable people are being shut up and shut down. Today's media landscape, Juan Williams says, feels like a New York City street.

JUAN WILLIAMS: You hear the cabs honking and the kids screaming and the ice cream truck with its melodies. You can hear everything out here and I think to myself, but, David, I think the experience most Americans have is that they bite their tongue on a regular basis.

FOLKENFLIK: The first chapter of "Muzzled" focuses on Williams' firing as a senior news analyst at NPR, which he says exemplifies the pressure on people throughout society to censor themselves. In his case, Williams blames what he says is a small group of elitist liberal news executives who didn't like when he expressed his opinions in other news outlets, including the Fox News Channel.

WILLIAMS: I think that what was behind it in the mind of the executive that fired me was my willingness to work for Fox and to engage conservatives and to stand up and make arguments that oftentimes were construed as conservative arguments, whether it was on Fox or in print or in books.

FOLKENFLIK: In "Muzzled," Williams writes that editors were unhappy with his previous book, "Enough," in which he criticized liberal black leaders. Williams, himself black, says he was told by an NPR executive whom he would not identify that he was not in sync with the kind of African-Americans valued by the network. Yet NPR's MORNING EDITION devoted seven and a half minutes to an interview with Williams about "Enough" and used it to kick off a week of stories about leadership among African-Americans.

MARGARET LOW SMITH: NPR is a stunningly open-minded place.

FOLKENFLIK: Margaret Low Smith is NPR's acting senior vice president for news.

SMITH: We're deeply appreciative and, in fact, encouraging of different points of view. Everybody knows that we apply journalistic rigor to absolutely every story we tell. We challenge our own. We challenge each other's assumptions every day in the way we report the news and the way we lead this organization.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR officials terminated Williams' contract last October. Fox's Bill O'Reilly asked him what was wrong with saying Muslims killed us on 9/11. Williams said, not to worry.

(Soundbite of Fox interview)

WILLIAMS: 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've 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.

FOLKENFLIK: A minute later, Williams circled back, telling O'Reilly it was important to distinguish between a terrorist and a faith, saying Americans did not blame Christians for Timothy McVeigh's deadly attack in Oklahoma City. But critics said Williams was encouraging racial profiling. Ellen Weiss, then NPR's senior vice president for news, called Williams to cut his contract short. The ensuing outcry from journalists and conservative lawmakers cost Weiss her job and helped fuel the later departure of CEO Vivian Schiller in March.

These days, no one at NPR defends how Williams was fired. Williams writes of his fears for his career and wrote he was concerned he'd be considered bigoted. He found widespread sympathy from journalists, including Clarence Page, a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. But Page also notes Williams' two-book deal, his newspaper column and his three-year contract with Fox News, worth a reported $2 million.

CLARENCE PAGE: I have a hard time seeing Juan as being muzzled. I have no quarrel with NPR or Fox News deciding what's going to go out over their air and who the people are going to be who are going to put that stuff out over the air.

FOLKENFLIK: The media critic William McGowan is author of the book "Gray Lady Down," which contends the New York Times is compromised by liberal bias. He thinks NPR leans to the left and should have leapt at a chance for its journalists to appear on Fox shows with conservative hosts.

WILLIAM MCGOWAN: I listen to it at a discount, but it's got a lot to offer. It is not the great Satan that the right wing on Capitol Hill made it out to be.

FOLKENFLIK: Williams' central contention that people are muzzled occurs amid the presence of cable channels and websites feeding almost every ideology or interest and the ability of non-journalists to find audiences on Twitter or Tumblr. He says ordinary people in the sensible center get steamrolled, yet he says he's a fan of Fox's high-decibel approach.

WILLIAMS: I think that you've got to have strong personality, strong points of view in order to succeed in this media landscape.

FOLKENFLIK: That's a central conflict. Margaret Low Smith says NPR wants to draw clear lines between opinion, that is, beliefs, and analysis providing context and insights. This week, Williams has been making the rounds to make his case about his beliefs and to promote "Muzzled" in print interviews, on "Fox News," on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show," and on other public radio programs. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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