The Profound Importance of Juan Williams

Apparently Juan Williams is really, really, really important.

By now we all know that Juan Williams was fired from his gig at NPR.  Indeed, here at OTB both James Joyner and Doug Mataconis have commented on the issue today.

In terms of the basics, I agree with James, i.e, that the firing is “it’s an organization whose raison detre is reasonable conversation protecting its brand.”  And, as is discussed below, I think Doug has a valid point about understanding Williams’ statement in context.

I have been aware of Juan Williams since his days on CNN’s Captial Gang and Crossfire.   Further, I have watched him as a Fox News contributor pretty much since he started with the network.  As such, I am familiar with his work on TV as well as his work on NPR.  It should also be noted that while Williams was once a host of an NPR show (Talk of the Nation) his prominence at NPR has been limited for years and, as such, his exit is likely not that big a deal to his career.

Having said all of that, I would like to note:  the fate of the republic does not hang in the balance because NPR decided to let him go.

Nevertheless, we have the following:

  • Sarah Palin sees threats to the First Amendment.
  • Ditto with P. J. Salvatore at Big Government.
  • Then comes the cries of “political correctness” from Bill Kristol and Michelle Malkin.  Side note:  is it just me, or is the term “political correctness” old, tired and so early 90s? (And, to be fair, Williams’ himself used the term on O’Reilly).
  • My personal favorite:  Bernie Goldberg claiming it represents “the Death of Liberalism” (in ultimately what reads like a column-link non sequitur).  It was this one, in fact, that inspired this post.

Look, I think Doug has a point (link above) that a viewing of the whole clip puts Williams’ statement in broader context (and a better light).  However, the exact importance of this personnel decision by NPR strikes me as unworthy of the dramatic significance being attached to it (it is all over Memeorandum at the moment).  And yes, I am contributing to the attention (call it the blogger’s paradox:  to express an opinion about too much attention/focus and/or significance being attached to a particular event means adding to what one is criticizing).

One suspect, by the way, that NPR may have been looking for a reason to severe ties with Williams given his aforementioned diminished role at the network and the fact that there has already been concern on NPR’s part that Williams’ role as a commentator on Fox News Channel affecting the way listeners perceive him (back to James’ point above—indeed, they had already asked him to stop identifying as an NPR employee when he was on Fox).  Part of that is, without a doubt, the fact that Fox has increasingly become a polarizing entity and, further, the difficulties to be associated with walking the line between commentator (which is his sole role on Fox) and news analyst/journalist (the role that he played on NPR of late and seemingly a sparing one at that).

Would I have fired Williams for what he said?  No, I would not have so done (given, again, the whole discussion, not just the sentence that has attracted the most attention).  Do I think that this is some sort of major commentary on the state of speech and the press in the United States?  Not by a longshot.

I will say this as a counter-point:  I find it a bit problematic that so many people dismiss the notion that overly general and negative comments about Muslims are no big deal and, further, than anyone pointing that out is engaging in unreasonable political correctness.

Again, I think Williams redeems himself later in the O’Reilly segment, but the following sentence  “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” is problematic as it is, by definition, a prejudiced attitude.  Further, the notion that someone would wear clothes associated with their religion means that they are “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims” (which implies they don’t first identify as American) is problematic as it has a political/nationalistic/xenophobic connotations.  We don’t have that reaction, for example, if some is wearing a Yarmulke, a crucifix, or various hairstyle associated with any number of religions.  We don’t see that as some threatening “other” but rather as legitimate expressions of religious identity.  Yes, I know that the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim, but again the problem here is that many people want to indict all Muslims for the acts of a handful.  As a side note it is worth noting that the Muslims that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks did not go around dressed in Muslims garb and, indeed, tried to fit in as much as possible into US society including getting lap dances at strip clubs.  So not only is it prejudicial to associate people dressed in full Muslim garb with terrorism, the likelihood is that such a person isn’t a terrorist (both in terms of pure probability and the likely tactics of a terrorist).  Just like air marshals don’t wear uniforms it seems rather likely that would-be hijackers would wear clothes to help them blend in.

One thing that does strike me about this event is that one does wonder the degree to which decisions are being made based on one clip as seen on the internet rather than an entire segment (like, as Doug notes, the Shirley Sherrod situation).  However, that is not an issue of content or so-called political correctness, but one of poor decision-making (i.e., sans complete information) in our current media/technology environment.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Well said Steven.

    This has, inevitably, become a political football today.

    Or as I put it elsewhere — yesterday’s shiny object was Ginny Thomas and Anita Hill, today’s shiny object is Juan Williams and NPR. Our political and media culture is all about being distracted by the meaningless stuff

  2. mantis says:

    Our political and media culture is all about being distracted by the meaningless stuff

    That you keep writing about.

  3. James Joyner says:

    It’s the nature of the business we have chosen, I guess. That this has been the subject of not only such handwringing in the blogosphere but three feature posts on OTB this morning says something about our media culture.

    Indeed, to the extent that I usually think of Juan Williams, I think of his work on Fox first and foremost. Then, probably, his authorship of “Eyes on the Prize.” Then his long career at the Post and previous television stints that Steven mentioned. And then, oh yeah, he was on NPR. (Ditto Cokie Roberts — NPR is a minor gig for her.)

    To me, NPR is “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Fresh Air,” “Car Talk,” and that Garrison Keilor show about the town where all the kids are above average.

  4. mantis says:

    To me, NPR is “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Fresh Air,” “Car Talk,” and that Garrison Keilor show about the town where all the kids are above average.

    Lake Woebegon, MN. If you haven’t heard the “Planet Money” series, which spun off of an exploration of the subprime mortgage crisis on This American Life, you should check it out. Best coverage of the financial crisis anywhere. You may have heard pieces by them on the morning shows you mention, but their This American Life stuff and podcast are where its at.

    Doug, you can safely ignore it, as is your wont.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    It wasn’t that he was simply fired; NPR decided to send a message with it, to me, to you, to everyone paying attention. This was not handled as a private matter, so whether he continued to fit with NPR’s brand is completely beside the point. NPR wanted us to know something about NPR and it’s values. Message received, though perhaps not the message intended.

  6. Peter says:

    All 75 of NPR’s listeners are angry at this news.

  7. john personna says:

    Actually, what’s really really really important here is to preserve NPR is a whipping boy. They are liberal, don’t ya see. They are politically correct, don’t ya see.

    Never mind that Marketplace and Planet Money give daily explanations and endorsements of the American free market system.

    Doh! But to know that you’d have to listen to them, and that might endanger your carefully crafted paranoia that NPR is socialist, probably Muslim, maybe even born in Kenya, and out to get you.

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    John, you really should seek professional help. I know around here I have a reputation I richly deserve so when I say you need help, I know of what I speak.

  9. mantis says:

    All 75 of NPR’s listeners

    Ignorance is bliss.

    In spring of 2009, 26.4 million listeners heard its news in an average week, either on a member station or through a feed provided to another station.

    State of the News Media

  10. John Personna says:

    Maybe MIT humor was poor, but there is no doubt that NPR attacks are in part in-group signalling. It’s also fair to say that signaling has little to do with who NPR is today.

  11. John Personna says:

    Heh – phone made “my” into MIT

  12. N. Friedman says:

    NPR, of course, is free to fire who it wants to fire. However, notwithstanding Professor Taylor’s view, noting one’s premonitions is not a species of prejudice. And, fear that Muslims are more likely than others to engage in terror on planes is belied by the large number of incidents. The State Department lists 46 foreign terrorist groups, of which 13 are not Islamic in orientation. Presumably, by Professor Taylor’s reckoning, these groups must share that same handful of terrorists.

    The truth is that, while the vast majority of Muslims have not engaged in terrorism, the Jihadists are a significant movement among the world’s Muslims. And, that means that Professor Taylor’s contention is simply contrary to fact.

    What Professor Taylor could say, which would be true, is that the chances that any given plane (or bus or hotel or pizza parlor) will be attacked is small, the great likelihood is that, were an attack to occur, it would be carried out by Muslims. That, after all, is what the existence of all those Muslim terrorist groups named by the State Department supports as having to be the case.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    jp: The word on the Right is Nina Totenberg.

  14. @N. Friedman

    I have three responses:

    First, you are missing the point of the math. Not only are the chances that a given plane, bus, etc. will be attacked small, they are extremely small. Indeed, the actually probabilities are close to zero. So even if the probabilities are high that such an attacker would be a Muslim extremist are high, you have to factor in the probability of the attack when “noting one’s premonitions” about a given Muslim that one encounters. One has to come to the rational conclusions that the chances are practically zero that said person is a terrorist. Indeed, the chances that any given Muslim is a terrorist is roughly the same as any given Anglo, Hispanic or African-American that one encounters if you think about the actual probabilities involved.

    Second, if we are playing the probability game, we have to take into consideration that second most devastating terrorist attack on US soil was committed by a white male, which screws up your probability calculation even further especially if one classifies things like workplace shooting into the “terrorism” category. Indeed, I suspect that one’s chances of being shot by a disgruntled co-worker are higher than one’s chances of being the victim of Muslim extremism.

    Third, you miss the point about the Muslim garb. Again playing on these small probabilities, the odds are better than the Muslim in traditional garb is not a terrorist as said person is not trying to be stealthy.

    So, yes, assuming that any given Muslim might be a terrorist because they are Muslim is prejudicial by definition (and also an exercise in innumeracy).

  15. tom p says:

    Well, JW has landed well…. What do ya know, Fox news has found a way to give hime a $2,000,000 contract per year. (or somehing like that)

    Sorry Doug if my heart does not bleed for him.

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    NPR sucks!!!!

  17. anjin-san says:

    Whatever else one thinks of this, it seems bogus that Williams was fired over the phone. He has always struck me as a pretty decent guy, and you would would think his long association with NPR would earn him the courtesy of a face to face. Not a classy move at all.

  18. N. Friedman says:

    Mr. Taylor,

    With due respect, the thing that concerns anyone and everyone I know who flies is getting to one’s destination. One worries about all those things which potentially impact on reaching that destination. One factor is the possibility of terrorism, which comes, as you concede, overwhelmingly from Muslims. Hence, these are not prejudices but judgments, based on watching the news, where there are incidents of Muslims committing terrorist acts more or less each and every week, somewhere in the world. That is not the case with any other group, at least not now.

    So, to include worry about what a Muslim will do involves stereotyping but, frankly, stereotyping is not the same thing as prejudice.

  19. So, to include worry about what a Muslim will do involves stereotyping but, frankly, stereotyping is not the same thing as prejudice.

    First, I still think you are missing the point about probabilities (and, for that matter, the McVeigh reference).

    Second, the definition of “prejudice” (from Merriam-Webster):

    2a (1) : preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge
    b : an instance of such judgment or opinion
    c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics

    And from the definition of stereotype:

    something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment

    emphasis mine.

  20. Max Lybbert says:

    There are, of course, several different aspects to this. For instance, did Williams have a First Amendment right to say what he did? Sure. Do Muslims have a First Amendment right to build a mosque anywhere in New York they want to, assuming they follow zoning practices? Sure.

    Were those comments wise? Are we really at a point where admitting that thinking about terrorism when getting on a plane is taboo? I’ve recently heard the theory that some people in the US believe that you’re allowed to believe whatever you want of certain groups of people, but you aren’t allowed to actually voice those beliefs. I’m not entirely convinced, but episodes like this, or Gloria Allred, do make me wonder (if I fired somebody because of a no-match letter from the Social Security Administration that also said “this letter does not necessarily mean that your employee is an illegal immigrant,” Gloria Allred would file a lawsuit against me as soon as she heard about it, but her current media tour appears to be premised on the idea that such a letter is, in fact, enough reason to assume that the employee is illegal; but apparently you aren’t allowed to say so).

    Does NPR’s Constitutionally-protected freedom of association include the ability to not associate with Williams, i.e., to fire him? Yes. Does a company’s decision to use credit scores as a way of screening employment candidates also fall under freedom of association ( http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2010/07/employee-reliability.html )? What about right-to-work laws? I have an answer, but I also know several people who would want to get back to you on that.

  21. N. Friedman says:

    Mr. Taylor,

    I do not think that I missed your point, having seen your reference to Mr. McVeigh. His, however, was a one off act, not one of a series of acts. The incidents of terror by Muslims in the name of Islam already count in the many tens of thousands, if not more, over the course of the last twenty years. Hence, it is a reasonable judgment to (a) worry about terrorism and (b) anticipate the possibility – in fact, likelihood – that certain Muslims will be the cause of an act of terrorism.

    As for the word “stereotype,” I was using the traditional academic definition taught in school, which is normally understood, most especially among academic discussions, to note a function of the human mind, which necessarily generalizes about events, groups, etc.. Stereotyping involves oversimplifying but that does not make stereotyping into a word for prejudice. It can be but is not necessarily. I recall my son’s class, back when he was in high school, being told the difference and being told that all people stereotype (and have no choice, since that is how the mind words) and that mere stereotyping is not prejudice. Perhaps, you have not considered that possibility.

    Let’s assume that you are correct that there is no distinction between McVeigh type and Muslim terrorists. That merely means that one ought be concerned about both possibilities, if one is concerned about the possibility of terrorism while flying. Your argument appears to be, by contrast, that one ought not worry about such things at all, on the theory that the probability is low.

    I agree – and already stated – that the probability of any one flight being victimized is rather low but that does not mean worrying about it is unreasonable or that imagining who, entering a plane, might be the source of a possible attack is unreasonable. That is what most human beings I have met, American or otherwise, do. I bet it is what you do as well. If not, you are most unusual.

    Maybe one should, in addition to concern about Muslim terrorists, worry that there will be many one off events by McVeigh imitators in the US – maybe. But that does not end the concern about Muslim terrorists. And, the low probability of a terrorist act in general does not make it prejudice to associate Muslims with the possibility of terrorism in connection with airplane flights because Muslims are overwhelmingly the most likely source of terrorism, most especially on planes. To deny that is, frankly, to be in denial.

  22. As for the word “stereotype,” I was using the traditional academic definition taught in school, which is normally understood, most especially among academic discussions, to note a function of the human mind, which necessarily generalizes about events, groups, etc.

    Speaking as an academic, I am not sure where you are coming from here. Indeed, from an analytical point of view, stereotyping is considered a no-no.

    Let me try this one more time.

    First, my McVeigh point is that terrorism itself should not be limited to Muslim extremism. There are other types of people who commit terrorist acts, which muddies your probabilistic assertions in the first place.

    Second, even if we stipulate for the sake of argument that it is more likely that a given terrorist act will be committed by a Muslim extremist, that does not mitigate against the fact that any given Muslim is still extremely unlikely to be a terrorist. So you are, in fact, acting in a prejudicial fashion by treating all Muslims on planes as potential terrorists.

  23. N. Friedman says:

    Professor,

    You write: “Indeed, from an analytical point of view, stereotyping is considered a no-no.”

    You are confusing “essentialist” historical analysis with the requirements of the human mind – as would be taught in psychology or, more than likely, a philosophy class. Here is a thought experiment for you. Imagine a clock. My bet is that you, initially, will imagine one or both of two basic types: one, that has hands and the other that is digital/numeric. In fact, though, there are many other types of clock displays and, once upon a time, most were neither of the mentioned types (e.g. think sundials). The process of going from examples to generalizations involves, by necessity, stereotyping.

    I recall, when I was a kid, listening to Lester Maddox on the Dick Cavitt show. Cavitt used the stereotype that Southerners are bigots. Maddox demanded an apology on behalf of Southerners. Cavitt responded that if he called any Southerners bigots who are not bigots, he apologies to them. Maddox walked off in a huff. Now, in fact, not all Southerners were bigots. Yet, the stereotype was not an unreasonable one, there being quite a number of bigots in the South. By your way of thinking, Cavitt was in the wrong and is, in fact, prejudiced. By my way of thinking, he was in the right, using a normal generalization that, while offensive, is not prejudiced. Rather, what was seen nightly on the news of that time pretty much confirmed the generality he was stating.

    Of course, you would note probabilities. Most Muslims are not terrorists. To which I would respond, when you are in a confined space, one is entitled to greater deference than in the abstract. You only get one life.

    If you respond, please do not merely repeat your points. I understand them entirely. I just think you are living in denial – as noted by your seemingly grudging acceptance of the fact that the vast, vast majority of incidents of terrorism – in the tens of thousands (something which no other group remotely approaches – come from Muslims. Which is to say that, just now, Islam is in a crisis of sorts, which rightly impacts on how people view things.

  24. I must confess, I remain unconvinced that you do understand my points, but I suspect at this juncture it is best to leave it at that.

    You might as well say, and be honest about it, that you think pre-judging all Muslims as potential terrorists is a good and acceptable thing and, like Cavitt, you can apologize to the ones who are not terrorists. I don’t see the point of tortured reasoning to avoid the fact that you think that prejudice in this case is acceptable. You are certainly entitled to your position and I am sure i am unlikely to dissuade you.

  25. N. Friedman says:

    Professor,

    I thoroughly understand your points. I, however, think they are not well considered, even from your point of view.

    You speculate that I might believe that “pre-judging all Muslims as potential terrorists is a good and acceptable thing and, like Cavitt, you can apologize to the ones who are not terrorists.” That is incorrect.

    I think, to be clear, that the source today, of an act of terrorism, is usually a Muslim. I think that is a fact -whether or not you want to acknowledge it. And, in getting onto an airplane, I am quite certain that, of those getting on planes, roughly 99.99% of those flying worry, just a wee little bit in the back of their mind, that a Muslim will commit an act of terror on that plane. And, frankly, the few people who do not think that way are not normal. Call it the pink elephant phenomena – which is not the same thing as prejudice. See the movie from which the “pink elephant” notion comes from and multiply the number of “pink elephants” by the tens of thousands of instances of terrorism by Muslims acting in the name of Islam, to the point that it is impossible not to have such possibility in the back of the mind. In fact, I am willing to bet that you too have the possibility of terror from Muslims in the back of your mind when you fly – or, at least, you will from now on, I suspect.

    It is not pre-judging. It is drawing a reasonable conclusion from the available evidence. Stop living in denial. You confuse one off events with serial events and you underestimate how much such serial events allow normal, unprejudiced people to generalize from those many thousands of events to reach the conclusion that there is a danger. To deny that is to be, as I have noted, in denial, which appears to be what you are.

  26. Max Lybbert says:

    > [McVeigh’s attack] was a one off act, not one of a series of acts.

    I’m not sure how strong this argument is. Eric Rudolph, for instance, comes to mind. Besides, if I get onto a plane and see somebody that reminds me of McVeigh, Rudolph, Eric Harris/Dylan Kleebold or others, I’m going to be a little nervous.

    But, apparently, that’s OK, so long as I’m not nervous about a protected group of people. If you’re nervous because of somebody’s race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. — and say so — then you’ve crossed a line. But if you’re nervous about their clothing style, you’re simply eccentric.

  27. N. Friedman says:

    Max Lybbert,

    While you have a point about there being more possible McVeigh’s, such people are not the reason why, when you get to the airport, you stand in lines to await, in some cities, body scans but, in any event, security checks and xrays, etc., etc.. Maybe McVeigh type people would attack planes – although that has not been their MO.

    There is, however, one group in particular which sees fit to blow up planes and fly planes into buildings. That is not all members of that group but it is enough that, worldwide, there is substantial money poured into airport security to increase the difficulty of committing such acts. The professor knows it but, frankly, chooses to elide the possibility that normal people, employing the normal mental process of generalizing, might be concerned, somewhere in the back of their minds, that a lunatic of Islamic faith might decide to commit mayhem on a plane. He is living in a fool’s paradise.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    Bigotry is just fine aganst Muslims, but not against black people, apparently…

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/10/juan-williams-busted.html

  29. Max Lybbert says:

    While you have a point about there being more possible McVeigh’s, such people are not the reason why, when you get to the airport, you stand in lines to await, in some cities, body scans but, in any event, security checks and xrays, etc., etc.

    I’ll agree to that. In fact, while it was nine years ago and my memory is dim, I seem to remember metal detectors, X-rays and security guards at airports before 2001. They were put there due to terrorism in the ’70s by people very different from Tim McVeigh.

    Then again, there are metal detectors, X-rays and security guards at every US courthouse I’ve ever entered, put there largely because of violent criminal defendants, or sometimes violent parties involved in a divorce. And, you know, if there were more outbreaks of violence in courts ( http://www.google.com/search?q=courthouse+shootout ) I would probably feel a insecure serving jury duty.

  30. N. Friedman says:

    Max Lybbert,

    You are quite correct that the xray machines, etc., started before 9/11. And, that related to hijackings to Cuba and, most especially in Europe, to Palestinian Arab terrorism.

    What started after 9/11 was increased security and, if I recall, limitations on who could pass through security: passengers and, with a pass, one additional person with each passenger.

    Courts added security gradually. I recall being in Court in some places until 9/11 where security check points were not used. I could be wrong about that.

    The point, however, is that at an airport today, you stand in a line, thus making conscious of the possibility of terrorism. Having that possibility in mind, the mind naturally goes to the group now most likely to commit terrorism.