OK, so right off the bat let’s deal with what NPR’s firing of Juan Williams is, and what it is not. It is a free speech issue, but it is not a First Amendment issue. This is an important distinction because while many First Amendment issues involve freedom of speech, and many free speech issues involve the First Amendment, it is not the case that all free speech issues are First Amendment issues.
At bottom, the Speech Clause of the First Amendment is a proscription on what government can do to the media, not on what the media can do themselves. As a practical matter what this means is that NPR’s management had the right to do what they did, and that, were this matter to go before a court, its resolution would not turn on First Amendment case law.
This said, the wisdom of the action taken, and what it suggests about the future of freedom of expression generally, are very much at issue here.
People of a certain age may remember the sad case of Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, who was fired by CBS for some bizarre off-the-cuff comments he made about black athleticism while having a meal at a Washington restaurant. Other similar cases are those of Don Imus, and more recently Helen Thomas and Rick Sanchez.
So while there are some important differences in these cases, we’re beginning to see a pattern here: When reporters and commentators say things that arguably offend minorities (and thereby disturb the politically correct equilibrium) they get fired. And the question is whether this is the right, or even the intelligent, way to deal with such issues, especially for media companies?
It used to be believed that the best way to handle speech that is unfair or false was for more speech, not less, and by that measure a better way to have resolved many of these matters would have been for management to issue comments that mock, or directly challenge the falsities, in the offending comments.
Though the dust hasn’t even begun to settle, it’s already clear what many people, of varying political stripes, think of the way NPR has handled the Williams affair: They think it’s a disaster. As Howard Kurtz, formerly of the Washington Post, put it in a Daily Beast piece: “His firing has backfired, handing FOX a victory and making Williams a symbol of liberal intolerance — on the very day NPR announced a grant from George Soros that it never should have accepted.”
Indeed, the Soros revelation, combined with Republican and (especially) conservative antipathy for taxpayer support of PBS and NPR, guarantee that the Williams flap is not going away any time soon. As lamented here, there has been a coordinated and richly financed effort underway for months that has, as part of its aim, a substantial increase in government funding for public media generally, and that would oblige PBS member stations to redirect their news programs to more local coverage — the very thing that Soros’s contribution is designed to facilitate at NPR.
But that is a story that will play itself out in days to come. Front and center now is the question of the impact of the Williams affair on NPR, in which regard it might be useful to examine a couple statements; the offending one, made by Williams, and another, made after his firing, by the president of NPR, Vivian Schiller.
Here’s Williams’s comment: “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. But 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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
And here’s Schiller’s: “Juan Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and his psychiatrist or his publicist.”
Under pressure, Schiller later apologized for her remark, but going forward that may not mean much. Put it this way, of these two comments which one do you think is the most mean-spirited and intemperate? And of the acts at issue — Williams’s comments or his firing – which one do you think does more damage to NPR?
Yes, I think so too.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.