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Juan Williams talks NPR and life in 'big chair' on Fox

After nearly a week of reflection on his abrupt firing from National Public Radio, commentator Juan Williams said Tuesday he believes he did not breach "any journalistic ethics" when he said on television that he felt unsettled when passengers dressed in Muslim garb board airplanes.

"Over the weekend, people would say to me, 'Oh, you just got a new deal from Fox? Congratulations, that it all worked out so well,'" Williams said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun following an address at the University of Maryland School of Law that earned him a standing ovation. "But there's an emotional disconnect, because the way it feels to me is like I just got fired and I'm not even sure what I did wrong."

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NPR announced Williams firing last Wednesday for comments made two nights earlier on Bill O'Reilly's Fox show saying that when he sees passengers in traditional Muslim "garb" on an airplane with him, he feels "nervous." Within hours of the firing, Fox News expanded his duties at the top-rated cable news channel with the offer of a three-year $2 million contract.

Williams said Tuesday that he remained emotionally "roiled" by the abrupt termination that has earned NPR harsh criticism, and which touched off a firestorm over political correctness and whether the public radio network welcomes all political views. Williams has become a cultural flash point in a nation that seems particularly tense and polarized on the eve of what could be a watershed midterm election.

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Indicative of the kind of support Williams has found in recent days, an audience of about 150 members of Baltimore's legal community stood an applauded enthusiastically for him Tuesday night after a speech he delivered on Thurgood Marshall during an event honoring pro-bono attorneys. Williams, who has written extensively on civil rights history, is the author of a Marshall biography, "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary."   (Baltimore Sun Photo Gene Sweeney Jr.)

Williams said he remains incensed at NPR management, and was particularly angry about remarks made last Thursday by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who said Williams should have shared his views only with "his psychiatrist or his publicist," and not in a public forum.

He said he was troubled by "the implication that I'm somehow unstable or that I'm just a puppet that other people have to tell me what to say or what to do."

"That's very, very upsetting stuff," Williams said.

Schiller apologized on NPR's website for the remarks, but says she stands by her firing of Williams.

"So emotionally I'm still roiled by all this. And I just to have to say to myself in a very deliberate fashion, 'Just give it time.'" Williams said. "Because, the initial concern about things like paying for my son to go college, well, Fox took care of that for me. And I have a job, and in journalism today, that's not a little thing to say. So, you understand I'm not being dramatic. But there's a lot of emotional upset still involved."

The graduate of Haverford College said he has come to believe that Fox News is more enlightened than NPR, and faults the radio organization for what he sees as its "condescending" attitude toward Fox.

Williams' duties at Fox involve appearing on its top-rated news programs anchored by Shephard Smith and Bret Baier, as well as such opinion forums as "Fox News Sunday" and Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor." He also serves as a substitute host on O'Reilly's nightly program, which is the highest-rated prime-time show in cable news with an audience as large as 4 million viewers on some nights -- larger than that of all the competition channels combined.

"At NPR…they don't know this: A third of the audience for Bill O'Reilly's show is made up of people of color," Williams said. "At NPR, they think, 'Oh, these people who watch Fox don't appreciate diversity of opinion, they're not smart people. They're not informed people. Oh, yeah? I'll tell you what: They're informed."

Williams, 56, had been a longtime Washington Post reporter and columnist, before joining NPR, where he worked for about 10 years. He has written books on civil rights, and as a native of Panama who was raised in New York and who is conversant on topics ranging from popular culture to politics, defies easy labeling.

Williams said NPR "just doesn't understand the Fox audience" -- or have any idea how much more enlightened Fox News management is in some ways compared with news outlets like NPR, CNBC or CNN.

"Just consider the idea that Fox allows me the opportunity to sit in for Bill O'Reilly on their No. 1 show," he said. "That's the franchise. That's the moneymaker. If that show falls in the toilet, it's bad for the whole lineup. And yet Fox allows a black guy with a Hispanic name to sit in the big chair and host the show."

And, he added, "If you ask NPR they'd say, 'Oh that could never happen at Fox.' But it is happening at Fox. And let me me ask you something? Do you see it an CNBC? Do you it at CNN in prime time. Am I lying to you?"

Asked if he had any second thoughts about the week's events, Williams said, "Ultimately, I genuinely don't believe what I said violated any journalistic ethics."

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