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.
[UPDATE: Yglesias actually beat me to the punch on the sabermetric pedantry.]