For years NPR commentator Juan Williams‘s bosses had warned him about his borderline comments. Strictly speaking, he tended to tread that border at his non-NPR gigs, as a newspaper opinion columnist or as an analyst for Fox News, where he said things such as “[First Lady Michelle Obama] had this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer dress thing going.” (Carmichael was the 1960s civil rights activist who promoted the term and the concept of Black Power.)
The remark that finally got NPR to sharpen the ax came during Williams’s October 21 appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Williams was responding to Bill O’Reilly‘s appearance on “The View” and his comments on the 9/11 attacks, which caused Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk briefly off the set.
Williams said, in part, “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’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
Did Williams display a lapse in judgment in expressing his personal views? Or was this a Shirley Sherrod teaching moment? Either way, the swinging ax also caused damage to NPR, which weathered a storm of accusations of political correctness and even received death threats. The public station defended its decision to end its relationship with Williams, explaining that he had violated NPR’s code of ethics by expressing a personal view. (Williams was hired as a news analyst, not a columnist or pundit.) CEO Vivian Schiller took the matter a step further, saying that Williams’s opinion should be between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist — take your pick.” She later apologized.
An apology didn’t come from Williams for “speaking the truth“; instead, he signed a three-year, two-million-dollar contract with Fox two days after his exit. His new boss, former Republican strategist Roger Ailes, said of NPR executives, “They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism.” He too apologized, to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). He had new words for NPR, as he explained in his letter to the ADL, “[I]n my now considered opinion, ‘nasty, inflexible bigot’ would have worked better.”
The firing pulled the station into the cross-hairs of critics — including Williams — who wanted to see taxpayer dollars pulled from NPR. The House measure was defeated but may have been moot anyway: Federal money amounts to about 2% of the network’s budget.
Editor Claudine Zap covers what’s hot on the Web, and why, on Yahoo! Buzz Log. She contributed to this article.