Yesterday, NPR cashiered correspondent Juan Williams for doing something that had hitherto never been considered an offense in media circles: defaming Muslims. Up until now, you could lose your job for saying intemperate things about Jews and about Christians and about Matt Drudge. You could even lose a job for failing to defame Muslims. But we seem to be in undiscovered country at the moment.
NPR said in a statement that it gave Mr. Williams notice of his termination on Wednesday night.
The move came after Mr. Williams, who is also a Fox News political analyst, appeared on the "The O'Reilly Factor" on Monday. On the show, the host, Bill O'Reilly, asked him to respond to the notion that the United States was facing a "Muslim dilemma." Mr. O'Reilly said, "The cold truth is that in the world today jihad, aided and abetted by some Muslim nations, is the biggest threat on the planet."
Mr. Williams said he concurred with Mr. O'Reilly.
He continued: "I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. 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. I get nervous."
NPR said in its statement that the remarks "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
Salon's Glenn Greenwald raises the question we're all wondering at the moment:
I'm not someone who believes that journalists should lose their jobs over controversial remarks, especially isolated, one-time comments. But if that's going to be the prevailing standard, then I want to see it applied equally. Those who cheered on the firing of Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas and Rick Sanchez -- and that will include many, probably most, of the right-wing polemicists predictably rushing to transform Juan Williams into some sort of free speech martyr sacrificed on the altar of sharia censorship -- have no ground for complaining here.
Naturally, they don't feel that way! One can find the firing of Williams to be an "unbelievable" intolerance, and yet cheer on the firing of Helen Thomas. The same is true in the case of Octavia Nasr. Michelle Malkin is reliably dyspeptic today, crying "lynch mob" and "political correctness is the handmaiden of terror" and "Soros!" Naturally, should Mara Liasson appear on Fox News Sunday wearing a scarf that vaguely resembles a keffiyah, well... then political correctness will become the brilliant ally of the shrill.
Of course, let's be clear: "free speech" isn't something that entitles you to a platform in the media. Getting fired is not the same thing as getting censored. But "free speech" isn't restricted to "the speech we like," either. In my own career, I have -- to use the popular blogging term -- been "dooced," so I have some sympathy for what Juan Williams is going through. At the same time, I recognize that tendency to conflate "free speech" with the "speech you like" exists within myself, as well.
After some (perhaps overdue) self-reflection, I am reminded of something President Thomas Jefferson said to Thomas Cooper on the occasion of the founding of the University of Virginia: "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." So, as long as we are a free people, let's be a lot faster to combat and confront those things we see as "errors," and much slower to take the easy way out, and simply type, "So-and-so should be fired."