The hypersensitive media landscape has claimed another victim. Juan Williams, a 10-year veteran of NPR, was fired as a top news analyst on Wednesday night for remarks he made about Muslims during an appearance on Fox News.
The abrupt dismissal sparked sharp criticism of the network, with some top Republicans and conservatives calling for an end to all taxpayer subsidies for NPR. And by the end of the topsy-turvy day, Fox News announced it was giving Mr. Williams a seven-figure, multiyear contract to expand his role at the network.
In a segment with Fox News talk-show host Bill O’Reilly Wednesday evening, Mr. Williams acknowledged feeling “nervous” in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks when he sees Muslims board a plane on which he is traveling.
“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 the 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,” Mr. Williams said.
He went on to argue to Mr. O’Reilly that such individual fears, however real, did not justify a more general prejudice or discrimination against Muslims as a group.
Though his opinion was voiced for another news organization, NPR immediately terminated the veteran newsman, a longtime columnist for The Washington Post and author of several books.
“His remarks on ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR,” the broadcaster said in a statement, though the public radio network’s own news coverage of the incident acknowledged that Mr. Williams’ presence on the more conservative Fox News had long been a “sore point” with NPR executives.
“There’s so much misinformation on the blogosphere, it’s nuts. This has been an ongoing issue. When he does that, when anybody does that, it undermines their credibility as a journalist or, in Juan’s case, a news analyst for NPR. Those two things cannot go together,” Vivian Schiller, chief executive of NPR, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview Thursday.
The move provoked a chorus of complaints from critics who accused the radio network of political correctness and censoring Mr. Williams. Leading Republicans, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, political strategist Karl Rove and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, released statements slamming the move and questioning why taxpayers should help fund NPR’s budget.
“It is time for the taxpayers to start making cuts to federal spending, and I encourage the new Congress to start with NPR,” said Mr. Huckabee, who added that he would no longer appear on NPR shows because of the Williams firing.
Mrs. Palin said via her Twitter feed: “NPR defends 1st Amendment Right, but will fire [you] if [you] exercise it. Juan Williams: [You] got taste of Left’s hypocrisy, they screwed up firing you.”
Fox News Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Roger Ailes, in announcing the expanded contract for Mr. Williams, said the commentator’s duties now will include hosting Mr. O’Reilly’s show “The O’Reilly Factor” on Friday nights. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that the expanded contract was worth nearly $2 million over three years.
“Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at FOX News in 1997,” Mr. Ailes said in a statement. “He’s an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by FOX News on a daily basis.”
NPR made its decision after a complaint by the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group for American Muslims.
“NPR should address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats. Such irresponsible and inflammatory comments would not be tolerated if they targeted any other racial, ethnic or religious minority, and they should not pass without action by NPR,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR national executive director.
Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, a conservative press watchdog, insisted Thursday that “Juan Williams has done nothing wrong.”
“What he said echoes what the vast majority of Americans believe. It’s their tax dollars that fund NPR. But NPR is ignoring them,” Mr. Bozell said.
Mr. Williams, after a day of seclusion, emerged Thursday morning on Fox News to defend himself, denying he had made a “bigoted statement.”
“I said what I meant to say, that it’s an honest experience,” the newsman said. “It’s just a reality. I have a moment of anxiety, of fear, given what happened on 9/11.”