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Juan Williams, Fox News, NPR and the culture wars

Yesterday in a commentary piece I wrote about the firing on Juan Williams by NPR, I said that comments posted here to my first report on the news of his dismissal convinced me that this story was bigger than one analyst's contract being terminated. This move, I said, "cuts pretty close to the core of our current media madness and culture wars on the eve of a midterm election that is drenched in culture war divisions and anger."

If I had any fear that I overstated the culture war case, they evaporated as I watched "The O'Reilly Factor" Thursday night, the Fox News show on which Williams Monday made the controversial comments about Muslims that got him fired. I have not seen O'Reilly and Fox regulars like Karl Rove, whom the host interviewed, that fired up over an issue in some time.

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As reported in my second post yesterday, Fox News in its own way tried to make Williams whole by giving him a three-year, $2 million contract. But when O'Reilly told Williams this firing was a "good thing" for the former Washington Post journalist, Williams didn't seem so sure. The day had clearly been a tumultuous and emotional one for him -- as it would for anyone.

O'Reilly, who on Monday brought Williams into the discussion about Muslims that had everything to do with him and the book he was promoting and nothing to do with Williams, was very protective of his colleague Thursday night. Addressing the camera, O'Reilly promised  NPR CEO Vivian Schiller that she would "rue the day" she fired Williams. And the rest of his show included several calls to stop tax payer funding of National Public Radio.

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If that sounds familiar that's because no-money-for-public-broadcasting was a rallying call of Newt Gingrich and the new conservative Congress that came to Washington after the 1994 midterm elections. Remember the catchphrase "zero out funding," the headlines in stories in some major publications saying conservatives were trying to "kill Big Bird," and the arrival of the big yellow Sesame Street creature in the halls of Congress to lobby against the initiative?

Guess who one of the folks calling for an end to funding for NPR was Thursday: Gingrich. That's what I'm talking about with my culture war talk. And the Fox family or Fox nation, whatever you want to call it, was clearly rallying around Williams and holding up his firing as proof of double standards and lack of free expression on the left. Williams' abrupt dismissal was the bloody flag that O'Reilly was waving to lead the troops up the hill and into full attack mode.

Here's video from the show:

And O'Reilly had a target that he could use to make it personal and visceral in Schiller who Fox cameras caught up with earlier in the day as she was on her way to speak at the Atlanta Press Club. There she said that what Williams felt when he got on a plane with Muslims should not have been said on-air. It should have been kept between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist".

Schiller had already apologized for that remark by the time O'Reilly's show was taped yesterday. "I spoke hastily and I apologize to Juan and others for my thoughtless remark," she was quoted as saying on the NPR website.

And O'Reilly noted the apology. But Williams said she hadn't apologized to him and that he was angry about what her words implied.

Feelings were running red hot on O'Reilly's set. That's the way it gets with culture war issues.

I am not addressing this to Williams. I wouldn't presume to offer advice to someone who was going through what he is. He made a remark on O'Reilly Thursday night as to how he had always thought of journalism as a "priesthood," and I immediately felt a kinship in that we were both socialized to the same culture of this profession -- a culture that many in the business no longer even understand, let alone embrace. I believe the firing byNPR cut in some way to the core of that self-concept -- whether or not it was in any way justified.

But as one who works daily with folks on both sides of this issue and has friends in both camps at Fox and NPR, I truly urge some reflection, analysis and emotional restraint -- all things often lost on the culture war battlefield.

Calling for elected officials to end funding for public broadcasting as a way to punish NPR for firing Williams is an extreme position that will only make Fox News look more right-wing and partisan to many in the mainstream. As was evidenced on O'Reilly Thursday night, the Fox host and his colleagues know NPR gets only 2 percent of its funding from "taxpayer dollars."

And urging elected officials to spend their time on what many will see as a personal vendetta when millions of Americans are out of work and losing their homes will look like  misplaced priorities and self-absorbed media arrogance to others. It demeans the role of elected officials in the House and Senate, and it lends support to the argument of the enemies of Fox who say it is not a news organization -- it's a political machine.

Rally around Williams. Show the strength of Fox. That's a good thing. The core of what I saw on-air Thursday night on "The O'Reilly Factor" was almost tribal, and it was impressive. I can't think of many news organizations that have that kind of solidarity in the ranks.

But do that rallying by doing some good journalism at this crucial time of an all-important midterm election when citizens need information from all points on the spectrum as much as they ever had.

Don't do it in a personal attack on an institution that is so important to millions of Americans as a non-commercial source of news and information. Don't inflame and polarize American life further with angry rhetoric and "rue the day" threats.

Fox News came of age a while ago, and now it dominates in ratings thanks especially to O'Reilly, the highest rated cable host in prime time. You don't need to define yourself by enemies any more. Define yourself with some of the journalism that members of the priesthood Williams mentioned practice.

When Williams substitues for O'Reilly, as he is scheduled to do tonight, I hope he will bring some of that journalism to the table and not indulge in the kind of heated talk that further divides us as a nation in these troubled times.

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