Juan Williams to Helen Thomas: Clarity Missing in Debate Over Free Speech

Let us get one thing correct -- Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr and Juan Williams are neither racists nor bigots. By all accounts they are good journalists. But by expressing negative stereotypes about a racial or religious group they are guilty of breaching the ethics of fairness, crucial ingredients to succeed in journalism. Thus their forced resignation or firing from Hearst, CNN and NPR respectively is the right action. Having publicly expressed their biases they could no longer be viewed has having the credibility to be impartial arbiters of news.

In firing Juan Williams, NPR did not violate his First Amendment rights. It asserted the fact that his views were inconsistent with the NPR brand of impartiality much like CNN did with Sanchez and Nasr. In contrast, Williams' other employer, Fox News felt that his opinions were consistent with its brand of hard-charging opinion making. Fox News rewarded Juan Williams with a new and more lucrative contract. Folks who prefer thoughtful discussions will likely support the firing because they perceive Juan Williams to have violated his fiduciary duties. In contrast, people who enjoy the daily shout-fest at Fox News will welcome the addition of Williams to its all-star lineup of over-the-top opinion makers.

The firing of Williams, while the right thing to do, is also a lost opportunity to confront the kind of fears leads to the formation of stereotypical views about Islam and Muslims. It is likely that NPR, by doing the right thing, may have drawn more negative fire towards Muslims, a community already on the receiving end of some of the harshest criticism in this country. No other American ethnic or religious group elicits the kind of negative sentiments that Muslims do.

Juan Williams expressed fear of people in a "Muslim garb." What did he mean by "Muslim garb?" What makes him afraid of someone's dressing style or free expression of their religious beliefs? Did the 9-11 hijackers wear any "Muslim garb"? And even if they did, what connection does a dress have with criminal behavior? Besides the sheer idiocy of attempting to define "Muslim garb" Williams is also guilty of trying to create more fear about a group of Americans who are already negatively perceived and against whom hate crimes are on the rise. Such fear mongering hurts the type of reasoned discourse that NPR prefers. As Americans we can and should have vigorous debates. But bigotry simply has no place in a civilized society. Institutions like NPR, by trying to be impartial, are attempting to build a firewall against this bigotry. Fox News on the other hand profits from fear-mongering.

The firing of Juan Williams, has unleashed a firestorm of protest by folks like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich. Yet they stood silent when Thomas, Sanchez and Nasr were fired for essentially the same guilt of making stereotypical and insensitive comments about Jews. What is also disturbing is that groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (full disclosure, I served as its National Chairman from 2005 to 2008), honored Helen Thomas at their recent banquet and yet called on NPR to take actions against Juan Williams. Either all these firings/resignations are outrageous for they purport to curb free speech or they are the right action to take in order to preserve trust in journalism. One cannot have it both ways.

Are media outlets right in demanding its employees live up to journalistic ethics? Or is this excessive political correctness? Each case is different, but one thing is true that each business sets its own ground rules for what it will tolerate from people who speak in its name. NPR wants sanity, Fox News craves controversy. To each their own audience and to each their own brand.

In the greater scheme of things such firings may not necessarily improve journalism. Because it only pushes such harsh and insensitive opinion making to the margins without addressing the root causes that led to such erroneous opinions. The fact that Juan Williams has been rewarded by Fox News will make bigotry more commonplace in the public square. This election season has already seen a spike in orchestrated demonization of Latinos and Muslims. So long as consumers reward Fox News for its incessant attack on whoever is the flavor of the day, Fox News has no incentive to change. That to me is the biggest tragedy and lesson from the Juan Williams saga.

Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience.