The narrow question of Juan Williams’ firing from NPR is a personnel matter of little import to the world, the howl of conservative politicos and the eager chatter of pundits notwithstanding. What’s relevant about this story is the broader truth it has revealed: That the right has so successfully polluted the public discourse that casual racism easily masquerades as news analysis.
Williams had spent years making an improbable hustle work out for himself. He sold opposing services to separate employers. For NPR, he played the role of sober news analyst, always at the ready to explain big race headlines in calm, clear prose. For Fox, he played the role of good-natured sounding board for the bombastic, often racist nonsense Bill O’Reilly and other hosts spout. In this latter role, as with most of Fox’s “news” personalities, Williams was more of an entertainer than an analyst. He was, as Farai Chideya wrote in the Huffington Post, O’Reilly’s hype man.
And you know what, that’s all good. It’s not a hustle to respect, but it’s his right. At the same time, one job plainly cheapened the other, and NPR’s brass had long been annoyed with that fact. Williams finally gave them an excuse to get rid of him and, in so doing, improved his hustle substantially by landing a multi-milion dollar contract at Fox. He’s quickly proven adept at filling the job they’ve hired him for: House Negro.
But in that Williams is not remarkable. What makes this story relevant at all is the fact that so many people, on either side of the should-he-be-fired debate, accept the premise that the casual racism of his remark qualified as news analysis. Williams and his Fox colleagues have claimed his firing was a “double standard,” because other NPR analysts offer bald opinions all the time. Mainstream media watchers have chimed in to agree that NPR ought not police opinions. On “The View,” where the saga began with O’Reilly’s assertion about Muslims and terrorists, the ladies all agreed with Barbara Walters statement: “If you are someone who’s giving your opinion, then you’re allowed to give your opinion!”
Even some liberal columnists have agreed, if reluctantly. Salon’s Joan Walsh points to Rick Sanchez and other recent firings and acknowledges, “The whole trend makes me queasy. We need more speech, more debate about these issues, not less.”
But we don’t actually need more “debate” over whether it’s OK to profile Muslims. Williams’ remark wasn’t an opinion about whether health care reform will work or the Democrats will lose Congress. No, he argued that it’s appropriate to consider all Muslims terrorists. That’s not analysis; it’s bigotry. It’s not likely the most bigoted thing said on Fox that day, but it’s bigotry just the same and good for NPR for saying it’s not OK.
It’s true that Williams’ whole statement included more than his admission of being scared of people he believes to be Muslim on an airplane. After bonding with O’Reilly over their shared Islamophobia, he went on to challenge the larger conclusions O’Reilly draws from the experience. Slate’s William Saletan says, in fact, Williams is just like Shirley Sherrod—that he admitted racism as a tool for challenging it. Except that Sherrod went on to actually challenge it by helping poor white farmers trapped in the same exploitive economy as poor black farmers. Williams’ role on Fox is precisely the opposite: to legitimate the racism it spews into the world daily. And it’s a role he now profits from greatly.
Fox’s contribution to our “debate about these issues” is to make them into a debate in the first place. The right has screamed with such glee over Williams’ firing not just because they love beating up on NPR, though it’s certainly a reliable foil for anyone championing anti-intellectualism. They revel in the Williams story because it offers another chance to hammer home the notion that there are two legitimate sides to the bigotry conversation.
That’s an argument the right began as long ago as the civil rights movement. Indeed, the entire liberal-media trope was born from southern segregationists’ efforts to tar northern news coverage as unfair. Ever since, open bigots have exploited the lie of mainstream journalism’s objectivity to insist that their toxic ideas get equal treatment. They’ve been so successful that, amid a wave of news about LGBT teens committing suicide, the Washington Post thought it wise to run a presumably balancing op-ed from anti-gay hate monger Tony Perkins on National Coming Out Day.
Fox’s plain mission is to make bigoted, reactionary ideas seem legitimate, to declare news “fair and balanced” only when it includes hate speech as part of the “debate.” The network and its entertainer-analysts certainly have the right to pursue that mission. The rest of us have a responsibility to call it vicious and exploitive and to refuse to associate with it. Here’s to NPR for doing just that.