In response to Jon Chait and his many other defenders, I think it’s worth making a few points about the Williams firing. Let’s start off by assuming, arguendo, that his comments were objectionable (which they were) but not in and of themselves a firable offense, and also leave aside questions of a double standard. Does this mean that NPR was wrong? Not as I see it:
Most important, it’s utterly disingenuous to claim that Williams was fired for a single comment. This simply isn’t true. Williams had been warned about going on Fox and saying offensive things for years, and the race-baiting nonsense about Michelle Obama being “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress” is indeed being particularly instructive. This just wasn’t an isolated incident.
Since it’s relevant, allow me to be a sabermetric pedant. “Replacement value” and “mediocre” are very different things, and while Chait claims that Williams was mediocre he was in fact replacement value. Mediocre players have value — teams lose pennants all the time because they can’t fill holes with mediocre players. Replacement-level players don’t — by definition, they can be replaced by players you can acquire for nothing. Williams is the very definition of “replacement level” — hundreds of people could provide more informative and entertaining commentary for less money. I challenge any NPR listener to name a single interesting insight or fact that a minimally informed reader didn’t already know from Williams’ interminable career as a pundit. And the fact is, in any profession, this matters — the more replaceable you are, the shorter the leash you’re on. If you’re a good teacher and publish several articles in top-flight journals every year, you can probably get away with being a jerk who blows off faculty meetings and committee work — but if you’re a more marginal tenure case I wouldn’t recommend it.
Granted, when I say he’s “replacement level” I mean only for news organizations who care at all about informing their readers. For the role of being a Washington Generals Potemkin “liberal” on Fox News, his former NPR affiliation, lazy sub-mediocrity and uncritical immersion in shallow center-right conventional wisdom are major assets. So he’s landed on his feet (and how!), making attempts to turn him into a “free speech” martyr especially pathetic.
And, finally, I reiterate that the idea that NPR was attacking Williams’ free speech are absurd. Although the First Amendment is irrelevant here, I agree that there are free speech principles implicated when a relatively powerless employee is fired for expressing political views — but this has nothing to do with Williams, who was very well compensated for expressing his political views. To claim that his employers can’t evaluate the contents of his views when that’s what his job consists of is silly. Even more ridiculous is the idea that he has this high level of “free speech” in his new job. If he thinks this, I invite him to refuse to criticize Democratic officials and positions and to constantly attack Republicans, or to go on MSNBC and attack Fox News hosts. Nobody who has a job like Williams’ is afforded a level of “free speech” that Williams and his defenders claim.
What “free speech” and opposition to “political correctness” mean in this context, then, is the freedom to express prejudices about unpopular minorities. That’s it. As Greenwald points out, mainstream journalists didn’t rise up in outrage because Phil Donahue was fired for opposing the Iraq War. I assume that it doesn’t require elaborate argument to explain why this standard of “free speech” is worthless.
There’s nothing particularly complex here. The DOJ has no legal obligation to do appeal the DADT ruling, and there’s ample precedent for allowing a ruling of unconstitutionality to stand. And the case for making an exception here couldn’t be more compelling: the law unjustly burdens minority rights and lacks both popular support and the support of legislative majorities. (This case, therefore, can be easily distinguished from refusing to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.) Whether or not one agrees with me on this, however, when the administration claims it doesn’t have discretion here they’re not telling the truth.
But as in the case of Rick Sanchez it seems to me that if you assume Williams has been doing valuable work all these years, firing him over this single incident is excessive. But as an NPR listener, I’m a good deal more familiar with Williams’ work than I am with Sanchez’s and it seems clear to me that Williams has not, in fact, been doing valuable work all these years. If Williams had never made these remarks about Muslims and NPR announced his firing this morning on the grounds of general lameness and lack of valuable contribution to their programming, I would have applauded the move so I’m hardly going to deplore what actually happened.
While Ginni Thomas probably has the Bob Packwood award for the “creepiest act of communication from a conservative to hit the news this week” locked up, it must be conceded that Todd Seavey gave it a strong effort:
Especially priceless: Jonah’s peals of laughter after one of Seavey’s “some of you probably dated her at the same time” crack.
I would like to think that this will get Williams to reconsider whether he wants to waste what was once some real journalistic talent as a hack Fox News liberal, but I fear he will become a more committed YoostaBee instead…
…Sarah Palin’s theory that the First Amendment makes any criticism of people Sarah Palin likes illegal continues to be influential. Apparently, since I don’t have a contract with NPR my free speech rights are being violated.
…gmack in comments is also correct:
I do want to throw this out here: The problem with NPR’s political coverage is not so much that they employ folks who often mouth conservative arguments and framing devices; the problem is that they are utterly banal and tedious. And on that count, I think Cokie Roberts needs to go before Liasson (granted I’ll be happy if they both go, but one step at a time). In this sense, I’m a bit frustrated that Williams left over this flap. His comment was idiotic*, but the real problem is that his political analysis is useless, uninteresting, and uninformative.
With regards to blast weapons, it is clear that the authors of Landmine Action’s report want a de facto ban because of the effects that the weapons cause – albeit both intended and non-intended effects. But by focusing on the effects of the civilians, it is clear that an effects-based rather than intention-based rational is at play here – and I think serious questions can be raised regarding this strategy.
What serious questions? Is such a strategy ineffective? Does it lead to suboptimal outcomes? Weak norms? The banning of weapons that in humanitarian terms are actually superior to the alternatives? The only argument against the effects-based approach versus the intent-based approach appears to be Stephanie’s claim that there’s a mismatch between the advocates’ moral claims and the earlier structure of international law. But: Read more…
Well I’ll be damned. Who could have predicted that jabbing pins into someone’s chest to stimulate the flow of magical energy just might be dangerous? Oh, well. At least we now have evidence that acupuncture occasionally produces measurable results.
A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War…
Slaves were totally committed to the Confederate cause, which was totally about tariffs in any case! What evidence does she have for this racist-abetting nonsense?
The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Wow, that’s convincing! Hopefully she was able to get Strom Thurmond’s thoughts on the subject before his death too.
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My new column on civil-military relations is up at WPR. I would also heartily recommend that everyone read (or re-read, as the case may be) Charles Dunlap’s 1992 article “Origins of the Coup of 2012.” Dunlap makes some predictions that go astray (including unification of the military), and he doesn’t get the symbolic role of the military in American life quite right, but it’s still worth your valuable attention.
Start apologizing the moment you hear her voice. Remember, like a bear at a campsite, Virginia Thomas does not want to eat you, she’s only after your food, and in this case, your apology is the only thing protecting you from Mrs. Thomas mauling you to death. If apologizing does not work, clap your hands loudly into the receiver in the hopes of scaring her away.