Monday, October 25, 2010

Pete Wehner On NPR and Juan Williams: My Take

The Unmasking of NPR 10.25.2010//Contentions

On the matter of the firing of Juan Williams by NPR, I wanted to add a few thoughts to what has already been said and written. The first is that this incident will not soon fade from memory; rather, it will be seen, over time, as an important moment that further discredited liberal media institutions. It took well-known but fairly abstract truths — NPR is taxpayer supported and dominated by a liberal political culture — and gave it a name, a context, and a human face. The fact that NPR’s Vivian Schiller turned out to be monumentally inept and mean-spirited may have been known to a few others before NPR cashiered Williams; now that fact is known by millions of others. Consequently, NPR will suffer a serious blow to its reputation and pay a considerable price (hopefully) in terms of funding.

Second, what was unmasked during the last week was the extent to which modern liberalism (at least as embodied by NPR) is antithetical to classical liberalism, which celebrated open-mindedness, a diversity of thought and opinion, and the spirited exchange of ideas. The depth of intolerance at National Public Radio is so deep that even a liberal like Juan Williams was thrown to the curb. His sin is not only that he didn’t parrot the Party Line closely enough; it was also that he didn’t parrot the Party Line at the appropriate Party Outlets.

Which leads to observation number three: the degree to which Fox News not only obsesses liberals but also blows their circuits.

The genius of Roger Ailes wasn’t simply to build the most successful cable news network in history; it’s that in the process, he has caused liberals from President Obama and his top aides to NPR to make stupid errors — errors rooted in their intense hatred for Fox News. They cannot stand the fact that Fox shattered the liberal media monopoly in television journalism. But what truly drives the left around the twist is that Fox News is thriving — and with each attempt to discredit it, the network grows more popular, more powerful, and more dominant.

Out of this most recent controversy, Juan Williams will come out just fine. NPR, on the other hand, has emerged disgraced. All in all, not a bad outcome.


I think the worst thing Williams, who wears his mind and heart on his sleeve, did was be, possibly, inartful. Williams's point was that even though Muslims on a plane in full garb scare him, Muslims are not generally to be castigated or treated differently than other Americans.

So the issue is whether to make that point he should have indulged the revelation of his own biases. I can see that being argued both ways.

Williams could have made the same point differently without, at least possibly, insulting an entire and massive group of people. Jesse Jackson said once that he's sickened by the fact when he sees a group of people walking toward him on a city street (at night?) he's relieved when he sees they're white. That has been compared to what Williams said.

But I wonder whether a white journalist on nationally broadcast forum could with impunity say what Jackson said just to say how he felt or, like Williams, to go on and make a bigger point. I tend to think not, having to do with American racial sensitivities, even though the two cases are logically comparable.

Another example: could a non Jewish broadcaster say, "My first impulse when I meet Jews is to feel alienated from/revulsed by/vomitous towards, them, but I overcome my instinctive, wrongful feeling and compose myself and go on to treat them and act towards them like I do with any one else"?

I'm not sure where the line is between confessing dark feelings to make a bigger point that brackets them or to simply disclose them and saying something unacceptable by reasonable broadcast standards.

In any event, inartfulness, if that it was, is not a firing offense and it seems clear to me that NPR's excuse for firing Williams was tendentious, and in my view had to to do with him undermining the NPR brand by his coziness with and on Fox.

That to my mind is shameful.

And in these regards I think Wehner is right.


  1. I take your point that "inartfulness" isn't, or shouldn't be, a firing offense, and it may well have been his "coziness" as you put it with Fox that underlies the firing, but the fact remains that it was his simple statement of honest feelings that was the reason given. And I disagree with the characterization of those feelings as in any way "dark" or "irrational" as so many good liberals -- no doubt including Williams himself, ironically -- hasten to tack on. If, as you say, the Jackson comment and a similar one from a white journalist -- and I think, by the way, that Susan Estrich is supposed to have said something along those lines -- are "logically comparable", then, logically, it's the attempt to deny such feelings that's irrational. (Your Jewish example isn't in the same ballpark, since it's irrational in the way that simple bigotry has always been.) If we let ourselves be morally bullied by the PC police to the point that even the expression of rational fears inspired by a whole raft of real-world events and threats is verboten then I think we're creating a kind of Soviet-lite culture where feelings and expressions of all sorts must be run by internal political censors before we risk exposing them.

  2. Well let me push back for a minute. In my Jewish example, the speaker expresses some initial feelings, but goes on to say they're wrong. Let's tame the initial feelings to something like uncomfortable or anxiety-making to not lapse into polemical absurdity. I have trouble seeing the difference between the expression of that discomfort or anxiety and Williams's statement which, on his own reflection, is ultimately one of discomfort and anxiety which he then goes on to conquer. I can't see the Jewish statement passing broadcast muster. Why not? Williams has his reasons for his initial feelings. So does the speaker about Jews. Both feelings get gotten past by Williams and the speaker to the expression of a sentiment of equality and tolerance

  3. Re: your push back, Itzik, I think, with all due respect, that it misses the point of rationality -- what sorts of fears, anxieties, etc. are reasonable, i.e., a product of, as I said, a whole rash of recent events and threats, and what are not? (And I hope we don't get into just another relativist quagmire which would erase the whole notion of irrational bigotry.)

  4. No quagmires, but a different point: whether or not fears are rational or irrational is not necessarily the issue, though I can see how it might be.

    My point is that both speakers get beyond their fears/anxieties--reasonable or not--to express a better and laudable sentiment. If Williams's negative starting point--his fear aroused by any Muslim, however tha fear may be understandable--can be the predicate for his broadcasted better angels, why can't the non Jewish speaker's, whose instinctive anxiety might be born of a 1,000 understandable causes, be a similar predicate?

    Again, I understand the point you're making in distinguishing the two cases, but I'm not convinced that your point is to the/my point

  5. (I'll deviate a little from comments elsewhere.)

    You say "no quagmires", but it looks to me like this is one. If the non-Jewish speaker's anxiety really is based upon 1000 "understandable causes" that are as reality-based as, say Jewish zealots seizing a bunch of airliners and flying them into the tallest buildings they could find, Jewish fanatics blowing up planes, trains, hotels, in order to maximize slaughter, Jewish nationalists killing school children, Jewish fundamentalists going on killing sprees at army bases, Jewish extremists arrested in countries around the world just before being able to perpetrate more horrors, hordes of howling Jews screaming to behead anyone they think offends them, etc., etc., etc. -- well then, yeah, you might have a "similar predicate". But I don't think you do do. Figments in the mind of a bigot are not the same.