NPR's firing of Juan Williams is a shame

From the comments coming in on my post on the news of NPR firing analyst Juan Williams Wednesday night, I can tell you this move 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. Read my post and see the video of his remarks here.

Like any employer, of course, NPR has a right to field the team it feels best represents the organization and get rid of any contract employee who it feels is a liability. And NPR management in recent years has made no secret of its discomfort with Williams and another of its prominent on-air-personalities, Mara Liasson, also being employees of Fox News.


It wasn't the dual employment that seemed to bother NPR. After all, there is hardly a successful journalist in Washington these days who isn't earning paychecks from two or three different media outlets. Cokie Roberts has been doing it most of her career.

It was rather the right-wing ideology of Fox News -- particularly as it is expressed on such shows as those of O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity that was the problem. And Williams certainly got fair warning when NPR acknowledged last year that is was doing a formal review of Fox News content and the work of NPR employees on the top-rated cable channel.


But all that said, I still feel the firing of Williams is a shame. And I say that as a fan of his civil rights books and a critic and cable news guest who sees Williams' firing as collateral damage to the debased state of TV talk and cable news at a time of great confusion in this nation -- a time when we desperately need both of those genres to be all that they could be for this democracy.

UPDATE: The video below includes Williams defending himself on Fox News Thursday morning.

What I mean by collateral damage is that Williams was drawn into a discussion that from the first moments last week when it took place on ABC's "The View" was all about publicity, book sales and TV ratings. It had nothing to do with him -- and had no reason for even existing outside hustle, hype, promotion and sales.

On Oct. 14, Bill O'Reilly, the highest-rated prime-time host on cable TV, was promoting his latest book on ABC's "The View." When he made a remark that seemed to indict all Muslims for the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, two of the co-hosts, Joy Behar and Whoopi Golodberg, walked off the set in protest for a few minutes before returning when executive producer Barabra Walters told viewers that walking away in anger is the wrong thing to do. O'Reilly then softened his remarks.

The Internet went crazy. Social media went crazy. And the women of "the View" and O'Reilly were still re-living the incident this week.

Why were the re-living it? Because of the buzz and the accolades they received respectively from the right and the left. They all gained so much and risked nothing with their little bit of TV theater. Wait, actually, it's not theater. That is way too positive a word. It's TV burlesque done by media hustlers and con artists.

O'Reilly is a bomb thrower. He knew exactly what kind of buzz he could create with his remarks on "The View," and what it would do both for his book and his show. He is also brilliant in his calculations. He knew just how far he could go without setting himself and his career on fire. He does that almost every night -- that's the very essence of his TV persona.

Behar is a cable talk host on the make doing anything she can do to cut through the clutter and get more viewers for her nightly show on HLN. I'm going to leave it right there for now.

She and O'Reilly were made for each other, and they both got their bump and buzz -- and so did Barbara Walters and Goldberg for their talk show that now has new competition from CBS. If you are looking for political or moral guidance from any one of the players in this phony TV morality play, I have news for you: You are lost. But millions in our amusement-addled, TV-drunk culture don't know the difference between this kind of exploitation and genuine civic discourse any longer.

I took a pass on writing about their debased little dance last week, because in my own small way, I did not want to add to the buzz or these hucksters' clear sense of self-importance as players of political significance.

And I am not saying "poor Juan Williams" now. Some would say he is paying for what they might describe as him thinking he could talk out of one side of his mouth on NPR, and the other side on Fox News.

And when the devil held out his hand Monday night and invited Williams onto the dance floor, he didn't have to take it and sashay so boldly down the midway of invective, anger and dangerously coded talk that prime-time cable TV has degenerated into. Later in his remarks, Williams offered context to his words about his feelings toward Muslims. But in today's toxic mix of heated TV talk and instant online partisan blowback, it's the edit, not the explanation, that matters. He should be savvy enough to know that after all the time he has spent in front of the camera.


Maybe fetid swamp is a better metaphor what talk shows like "The View" and prime-time cable on all three cable channels -- Fox, CNN and MSNBC -- have become.

And it seems to fit better with what I see as the moral of this story. As strong and smart and tough as an award-winning, former journalist  like Juan Williams might have thought he was, he learned a lesson this week: There are beasts in the swamp that talk TV and public discourse have become. And they are in control of it in these dark times. And they can take you down in a second.

UPDATE: And how is this for a post-script, under the headline: You can have more money or your independence? Although, how much independence did he really have at NPR, some might ask.

Anyway, Fox News gave Williams a big, fat contract Thursday afternoon and an expanded role for what he said on O'Reilly's show Monday. I guess going "down" in the swamp is in the eye of the beholder. Or, maybe the moral is that going "down" does have its rewards. Serving as a substitute host for O'Reilly takes Williams out of the world of journalism and firmly into the realm of partisan ideology. I guess that is something each of us would put a different price tag on.

Here's the release from the cable channel that now has Williams all to itself:

FOX News has re-signed Juan Williams to an expanded role with the network in a multi-year deal, announced Roger Ailes, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, FOX News. Currently a contributor and a regular substitute host for The O'Reilly Factor, Williams will host the primetime program tomorrow night for Bill O'Reilly and will appear as a guest with him tonight.

In making the announcement, Ailes said, "Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at FOX News in 1997. He's an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by FOX News on a daily basis."

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