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Yet More Williams

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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.]

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  • All very persuasive. And yet NPR handled it in such a way that the “single-gaffe” explanation was the only plausible first read on the situation. NPR now looks narrow-minded, P.C., whatever, and Williams is suitably aggrieved. If they had waited a month and fired him for all of the offenses or none of them (specifically), that would have been vastly better.

    Unforced error.

    • Michael Drew

      Yes. You don’t make multiple warnings over years about directly breaking a policy you’re serious about, and if you do, you’re demonstrating the person you’re dealing with is decidedly above replacement value (and that’s for them to decide, not for us to judge objectively). Further, the policy in question forbids NPR journalists from even appearing on the shows Williams did, and from expressing personal views that the person wouldn’t say on NPR regardless of making “objectionable” statements when doing so. Unless NPR was “warning” him every time he appeared on Fox, they weren’t being consistent with their policy, and if they were, they were demonstrating unseriousness about it in terms of its guiding contract decisions. All of which points to NPR simply making whatever call they want at whatever time, which of course they can do. But doing so now rather obviously has to do with these comments. The tolerance in the past only bolsters the sense that there was a status quo they willingly tolerated, and this changed it. They can’t run from that reality, try as they might.

  • Warren Terra

    One thing that’s not getting enough attention is how stupid Williams’s comments were – when he sees people wearing distinctive Arab dress he fears they might be terrorists – but if course actual existing terrorists try to blend in. Even if he thinks every Arab or Muslim is a likely monster, it’s hardly the ones in their native dress that he should be worrying about.

  • TT

    The biggest problem with the political analysis offered by NPR, specifically by Williams, Cokie Roberts, and Mara Liasson, is how boring and unimaginative it is–a nasty gruel of conventional wisdom, dismissive Village clubbiness, and, since this is the establishment Washington press, internalizing of GOP thuggery and talking points. Mediocrity doesn’t even begin to describe it, and it should have warranted the dismissal of all three at least a decade ago.

    Plus, it’s not as if this is the first time Williams has gotten into trouble for saying or doing dumb things on the job–witness his Bob Packwood/Clarence Thomas imitation at the Post some 20 years ago.

  • NonyNony

    I have to say it’s really, really hard to take anyone who says that Williams “free speech” was violated when he turned around and immediately signed a multi-million dollar deal with FOX News. As far as I’ve been able to tell the only reason Williams has continued to be on NPR for the last 5 years or so is because he gets to spin himself as a “contrarian liberal” when he appears on FOX purely due to his NPR association. Without that, his political viewpoints are pretty much center-right moderate conservative almost across the board.

  • It is odd that NPR tolerates the sort of hackery that Williams and Cokie Roberts, inter alia, lay down, because they have quite a few good reporters. Nina Totenberg does solid work, and there aren’t many people who can do what Sylvia Poggioli does as well as she does it. The principle difference? Poggioli and Totenberg push themselves away from their desks and go do some reporting. Juan and Cokie just have half-baked opinions, and since neither one would be confused with a deep thinker their half baked opinions have no real value.

  • mark f

    Juan Williams is getting $2,000,000 from Fox? I guess he can afford to replace those urine-soaked pants now.

  • Brad Potts

    Scott,

    Do you think that the practical effects of this is to keep their employees expressing certain opinions on air?

    Do you think that was the intention?

    Third, do any of NPRs other employees not engage in punditry and express their personal opinions through other outlets?

    • DocAmazing

      Maybe you could convince Dan Rather that he was free to express on-air any opinions he had; maybe you could tell it to Phil Donahue.

      NPR has tolerated and continues to tolerate a tremendous amount of right-wing moonlighting by those who are supposed to be its public face. Juan Williams traded in his credibility a very long time ago and has merely been angling for exactly the sort of notoriety that he’s now gotten. NPR’s only mistake was in not pointing that fact out.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Do you think that the practical effects of this is to keep their employees expressing certain opinions on air?

        I suppose, but this condition is so banal it’s not even worth pointing out. How many pundits can actually write whatever they want without risking getting fired?

        • Brad Potts

          Then we can say affirmatively that NPR was issuing a condemnation of Juan’s opinion?

      • Brad Potts

        I have heard Juan Williams on NPR many times and before this incident never really thought of him as conservative, and I don’t particularly find the “Sure I experience a little anxiety when I see a Muslim on a plane, after all past Muslim terrorists have said that more terrorism was coming as long as we are fighting wars over there. But that doesn’t mean we should treat Muslim individuals differently” to be a particularly conservative argument.

        But that doesn’t answer the question, which was: is NPR trying to suppress the expression of this particular type of opinion?

        • mark f

          Arrrrrrggggggh. Look, he wasn’t interviewing some sociologist or terrorism expert or CAIR leader or whatever. In such a context it would be appropriate for him to say “this is how I feel and why and what does it say about me and America and Muslims in this crazy post-9/11 world?” But he was on The O’Reilly Factor and said that O’Reilly was right to hold all Muslims accountable for 9/11. NPR doesn’t want to be associated with that. Who gives a shit?

          • Scott Lemieux

            This.

          • Anonymous

            Bullshit. He specifically repudiated that exact position:

            “Hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals—very obnoxious—you don’t say first and foremost, “We got a problem with Christians.” That’s crazy.”

            That came directly after the statement you said holds all Muslims accountable for 9/11.

            The entire point of the statement was to point out that Faizel Shazad said “Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me only a first droplet of the flood that will follow me” and that events like that cause him to feel anxiety. That entire statement was a preface to the argument that we cannot let fear of that nature cause us to single out individuals.

            Perhaps he should have gone on the Bill O’Reilly program and insisted that current global events are in no way leading a segment of the Muslim population to condone or engage in violence against America?

            • Brad. P

              That was me, obviously.

            • Joe

              It sort of hurts his case when he starts off by saying O’Reilly is “right” … O’Reilly says he isn’t for targeting all Muslims either. Few do. They always have some qualification. Not all of them. etc. I don’t know what O’Reilly is ‘right’ about here. The mixed message is part of the problem for NPR.

        • Bill Murray

          If by “this particular type of opinion” you mean, going on a different network and using your NPR bonafides to say things you would not say on NPR, thereby associating NPR with your statement, then yes they wanted Williams to suppress that type of opinion.

  • Davis

    Williams would not have said that on NPR. He was sucking up to O”Reilly, which makes him pathetic.

  • Yes, but first they came for Juan Williams, and you did not object, because you were not an overpaid Islamophobic hack….

    Really, Scott, where will this end? Someday people will go so far as to criticize Marty Peretz, and then what’s a Jon Chait to do?

  • Joe

    The NPR ombudsman you link to once was targeted by Glenn Greenwald for supporting a selective use of “torture,” not using the term as applied to American actions given it is too explosive.

    The evenhanded avoidance of controversy by the NPR makes the claim by some this is some left thing is dubious. But, I think it was handled in a bad way, since it comes off that way to too many people.

  • I reiterate that the idea that NPR was attacking Williams’ free speech are absurd.

    I think the problem is that many journalists believe the “free speech” rights are exclusive to journalists and not guaranteed to the public at large. This is why I am particularly opposed to press shield laws, which seem more an attempt to carve out special privileges for “real” journalists like Judith Miller as opposed to say bloggers like Josh Wolf.

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