For 40 years, National Public Radio has been a national treasure. In an age in which the airwaves are inundated with bombast and spin by two-bit shock jocks, our national publicly funded radio station has blossomed with its distinctive, probing, even-keeled and intellectually rigorous content. NPR brings us “This American Life,”Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!,”Car Talk,”All Things Considered” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” among others. Over the years, I’ve grown to love and respect this station for entertaining and informing me with a refreshing degree of maturity and gravitas.
So frankly, I don’t know what to think in light of the recent controversy surrounding the firing of longtime commentator Juan Williams. Williams should have been more cautious in the remarks he made last week to Bill O’Reilly: “I’m not a bigot, you know the kind of books I’ve written on 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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Some, including executives at NPR, interpreted Williams’ words as a brash and offensive attack on Muslims. It’s not my place to apologize for Williams, but I do believe that as indelicate as his words might have been, they speak to a sadly true phenomenon in post-9/11 America.
Appropriate or not, effective or not, profiling on the basis of physical appearance or cultural heritage is practiced by everyone from official security apparatuses to the individual American citizen. Though we are not likely to admit it, each of us can probably recall a plane trip wherein our eyes fell upon a “Middle Eastern-looking” man, and our mind jumped to the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. Williams gave voice to an issue that our nation must address if we truly intend to extend equal justice and respect to all people.
NPR’s response was swift and deliberate. Without flinching, they fired Williams, and to throw salt on his wounds, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller snidely chirped that Williams’ sentiments on Muslims should have been kept between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist – take your pick.” As justification for the termination, the network cited their ironic policy that political commentators are prohibited from providing personal commentary on political issues – a case of extreme cognitive dissonance, if you ask me.
Those with more knowledge of Williams’ relationship with NPR will add that Schiller and her cohorts were salivating for an opportunity to show Williams the door, primarily due to Williams’ additional affiliation with Fox News. Whatever your opinion is of Fox, it is a legitimate and engaging information enterprise, successfully catering to millions of eager Americans with material that ranges from objective analysis to stinging editorializing. Fox is my first choice for news, and as a devotee of the channel, I’ve come to appreciate Williams’ role as an independent-minded analyst. He is an asset to whatever news organization he works with.
Williams’ take on his firing by NPR is accurate. Talking to O’Reilly once again, he said of NPR: “I don’t fit in their box. I’m not predictable, black, liberal. You were exactly right when you said you know what this comes down to. They were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I’m appearing on Fox News. They don’t want me talking to you.” In so doing, NPR has violated its own policy by politicizing a petty dispute with America’s No. 1 source for news.
Who is the victim here? Is it Williams, martyred for his bluntness? Is it Fox News, pilloried for its programming? Is it NPR, slighted by its own representative? Is it America’s Muslims, once again made into a political football? Or is it the decency of our national discourse? Those questions are for each of us to answer individually, but I personally am led to the conclusion that there is no definite “bad guy” in this story. America is exceptional because her citizens are guaranteed tremendous liberty of expression. No one said that exercise of this right would be pretty. In fact, in this case it was downright messy.
Sam Dulik is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at sdulikthehoya.com. Quorum Call regularly appears every other Friday.