Friday, October 22, 2010

Juan Williams and NPR: Juan had the right to be wrong

There isn’t going to be a lot of sports in the blog today. The subject for the morning is Juan Williams, who was fired Wednesday by National Public Radio for saying to Bill O’Reilly on FoxNews that when he gets on an airplane and sees someone dressed in Muslim garb it makes him nervous.

Let me start here with a fairly lengthy double disclaimer. Juan Williams and I have been friends since 1977. We were kid reporters together on The Metro staff of The Washington Post. In fact, I succeeded Juan as the night police reporter when he moved up to write the features for The Metro staff that vaulted him into stardom. We became close. In fact, I’m godfather to Juan’s first child, Antonio.

Lives change and people go in different directions and we don’t see each other that often anymore. But we have the kind of long-standing friendship that if we go a year without getting together and then sit down to have dinner, we pretty much pick up exactly where we left off.

Juan and I frequently disagree on politics. In fact I find it laughable that Roger Ailes refers to him as a liberal. I guess that’s a relative word. He is considerably more liberal than most of the regular commentators on Ailes’s network. He’s also a lot less liberal than a lot of people—myself included.

That said, Juan is my friend—period.

The flip side is National Public Radio. I worked as a sports commentator for NPR for 21 years. To be honest, I stuck with it for that long for two reasons: I loved working with Bob Edwards, the host of Morning Edition and the exposure was great for me. People who listen to NPR are book-buyers. Beyond that, I reached a specific audience very important to an author: women. They do a majority of the book-buying in this country. I can’t tell you the number of women who came up to me through the years and said to me, “I’m not a sports fan but I love listening to you on NPR,” but it was a lot. Many told me that when they needed to buy a book for their sports-loving husband or father or son, they just checked on what I had written most recently and bought it.

Those two things made putting up with people who knew NOTHING about sports worth the annoyances that came with doing it. One example that is not a-typical: On the day Bob Knight was fired I called the desk and said to the editor working that Sunday afternoon, “Hi, it’s John. Look, Bob Knight just got fired so we’re going to need to find some space in the show in the morning to talk about it.”

“Bob Knight? Who’s Bob Knight?”

“Look, trust me on this. He’s the most famous college basketball coach alive for reasons good and bad. Bob (Edwards) can explain it to you when he gets in if you want.”

“Oh did he coach Michael Jordan or something?”

“Yes, he coached Michael Jordan.”(Olympics 1984).

It was like that a lot. Once, after I had talked in a pre-U.S. Open discussion in 2001 about how extraordinary Tiger Woods’ four straight victories in major championships was, I got a call from another editor who said: “Is there anything I can do to convince you to stop sucking up to Tiger Woods and talking all the time about how great he is?”

I laughed and said: “Do me a favor. Call Tiger or if you can’t reach him his agent and repeat to them what you just said to me.”

There was only one another time when I got a call about something I’d said on-air. I had commented that the presidents of the BCS colleges were, “about as corrupt as the mafia, although that may be unfair to the mafia.”

Apparently a couple of presidents took umbrage to those comments and sent Luca Brasi to talk to the senior editor of Morning Edition. Rather than sleep with the fishes she called to say the comment was, “out of line.” I told her I’d apologize to the mafia on-air if she wanted. She didn’t laugh.

I quit NPR this past March. It never felt the same to me after they fired Bob Edwards, who was only the best talk show host in history. What’s more, he was the ONLY person there who knew anything about sports and he was my friend. I got along fine with the new hosts but it was never the same.

Beyond that, because the regime that fired Bob never thought of me as ‘their,’ guy, I had already been marginalized. Getting on the air became more and more difficult. I actually had to FIGHT to get a piece on after the Tiger Woods accident. The editors weren’t really sure it was a story. (Maybe they were afraid I was going to suck up to him).

When I was told this past March that someone named Mike Pesca was going to be ‘their,’ guy for the NCAA Tournament instead of me, that was the breaking point. If they actually believed Mike Pesca would bring more to the table for their listeners than I would, it was time to go. So I went. What was funny was when I sent e-mails to the two top editors of the show saying that I really believed after 21 years that the show was better with me talking college hoops than Mike Pesca the response I got was basically this: “It’s really unfair of you to put down Mike Pesca this way.”

Okay, guilty. I think I’m better than Mike Pesca.

So, now that everyone knows where I’m coming from on this, let me tell you what I think: I completely disagree with what Juan said. I think stereotyping is one of the biggest problems we have in this country. Everyone wants to label everyone else. If someone had gone on FoxNews and said, “When I walk down the street if I see a black teen-ager walking in my direction, I get nervous,” Juan would have (correctly) called that a racist comment. If someone said, “I don’t do business with Jews because I don’t trust them,” a LOT of people would have an issue with that—again, correctly.

But I wonder this: If Juan had said to Bill O’Reilly something like this: “I’m tired of stereotyping in this country. I’m tired of right wing Republicans like you trying to blame everything that’s gone wrong in the history of this country on President Obama,” do you think NPR would have fired him?

I don’t. FoxNews might have but NPR would not have. Look, I don’t think NPR is nearly as liberal as conservatives like to think. There are plenty of moderate and conservative voices on NPR’s air—Juan among them until Wednesday. But for NPR to say Juan had to be fired for voicing an opinion that might be distasteful is ridiculous. Every time someone voices an opinion it is distasteful to someone. This was an absolute cave-in by NPR management. I said things ALL THE TIME on NPR that lots of people disagreed with—it’s just that most weren’t college presidents or the leaders of political groups whose agenda most of the time is to be outraged by anyone who disagrees with them on any level.

It is also worth noting what Juan said right after his comment about being nervous: “We don’t want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked because they hear rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy.”

NPR is claiming that because Juan was not listed as a “commentator,”—his title was “senior news analyst,”—that he was required to be ‘impartial.’ These people simply don’t live in the real world. (I know this because I’ve spent time in their world). Does anyone think this was the first opinion to come out of Juan’s mouth on FoxNews; on NPR or on the op-ed page of The Washington Post? They wanted to find an excuse to fire him and this was it. By doing so, they have now opened themselves up to a new wave of attacks from the right. Nice going folks.

There’s an old saying that goes like this: “I may think you’re wrong but I will fight to the death your right to be wrong.”

Juan had the right to be wrong. NPR has the right to have people on the air who will say he was wrong and explain why he was wrong. But firing him for being wrong?

Please. Get over yourselves.


Tony said...

And NPR has the right to run their organization as they see fit - but not with taxpayer dollars.

I would like to hear a credible argument why the United States government is supporting a broadcast entity? Let it survive in the free market. (and, yes, I know it is a insanely small amount of money, put pennies add up pretty quickly)

Anonymous said...

It is quite amazing that in a country built on free speech, everyone goes crazy when something is said that comes in honesty on polarizing topics.

Rory Wohl said...

Wow, I had always heard that you and Bob Edwards hated each other.

Anonymous said...

I think that this says a lot more about Fox than either Juan Williams or NPR. Note that NPR had previously told Williams not to mention that he was at NPR when he was on Fox. I think that NPR concluded that if it was going to be a true news source, moonlighting on Fox was not something that would burnish its image. In any event, I don't think that Juan was that good, or that insightful, but if he was a friend of John, then I suppose that John has the right to come to his defense (on the grounds that he was a friend, not because he was particularly talented, or had a lot to say).

Mike said...

Mike Pesca has been pretty good on NPR, I have to say, you should listen to the "Slate: Hang up and Listen" podcast to get a sense of his style, which is about as far from the SNL stereotype of an NPR employee as it's possible to get. Bob Edwards firing was ridiculous and idiotic. Have you watched Juan on O'Reilly? His appearance there lent an undeserved patina of respectability to Fox, and the way he kisses up to O'Reilly and the other blowhards is a bit stomach-turning. The offending statement was offered in defense of O'Reilly's indefensible bigotry.

John from Indiana said...

All this does is give the Right Wing Kool Aid crowd at Fox News another reason to foist off the whole "Fair and Balanced" BS on to people that never think past sound bites and yelling. In the final analysis, it just kind of makes me sad about the juncture at which journalism has arrived; and makes me equally sad that the public is unable to discern for themselves when they are being hoodwinked by people with much to gain by spreading half truths, and sometimes outright lies.

Anonymous said...

People who thnk NPR lives on taxpayer funds should read this:

Summary: NPR gets 2% of its funding from the federal government.

That said, it's obvious NPR is nothing if not dedicated to narrow political correctness. Anyone really think they would have done the same thing is a remark had been made about Bush?

Tony said...

I don't really see the importance of the question if they receive 2% or 20% from the government - we shouldn't be spending any money on this. With all of the challenges that we face as a country - it is time to focus our efforts on core activities (energy independence, education reform, etc) not spending on public radio (or Television - sorry Sesame Street)

bevo said...

"When I walk down the street if I see a black teen-ager walking in my direction, I get nervous"

Someone did give that exact quote. Jesse Jackson. I am not sure what your point is though.

Jackson also referred to Jews as Hymies and New York at Hymietown.

As to NPR, I stopped listening to it when (A) I got an iPod and iTunes and (B) the BBC started offering twice daily 30 minute news broadcasts.

The BBC stomps on any news product from this country.

Anonymous said...

tl;dr (srsly, EDIT), but not a lot of sports on the blog today? really? ALCS mean anything to you?

Also, your analogy (calling out Republicans vs. fearing people wearing Islam-y "garb") is just dumb. Reps and Dems are supposed to be at each other's throats (it's called "politics"-you might've heard of it). Judging people by the way they dress is a totally different thing.

So it's beautiful you have a beautiful friendship stretching back into the mists of time with Juan Williams, but the guy was fired for defaming a religion. He broke the terms of his contract. End of story.

Now get back to the sports, which you do better than political commentary.

Anonymous said...

Agree that there's no reason for government to support public radio. Scott Simon, Bob Edwards, Michelle Montagne...they all make at least $300K/yr. Why TF is tax payer money going to that? As a very left-leaning liberal, I still can't fathom it.

Anonymous said...

Okay you're now in my good book for not disapproving out my comments. You have cojones. I like that.

Tony said...

Clarification on the 2% debate:

While NPR receives only about 2 percent of its $154 million annual budget from federal sources, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Arts, its 800-plus member stations are much more reliant on tax subsidies. Some smaller stations receive as much as a third of their operating revenue from federal sources.

Gordon said...

Nina Totenberg says ON NPR that Jessie Helms and his grandchildren deserve to get AIDS and she maintains her employment. Mr Williams speaks his mind and gets fired by NPR.

MSNBC defends NPR. What a surprise! Totally ignoring the first admendment. I'm sure if Jaun had said something offensive to Fox and they had fired him Shultz, Matthews, Olberman, Maddow and O'Donnel would have screamed the loudest about how how unfair and unbalanced FOX really is. Hypocryts all at MSNBC! Obviously the 1st admendment applies to liberals and only what they agree with.

To say that NPR isn't liberal is just plain wrong. They are and it is there right as it is for MSNBC. And Fox to be conservative. But in 2010 why are we the taxpayers supporting them?

As for public television the same holds true. Most people don't know that the Childrens Television Workshop actually pays Henson Productions to run Seseame Street. Think about that Henson makes millions, and rightly so, from the sale of SS products and PBS pays them.

With 700 cable channels the time of PBS and NPR being taxpayer funded has long passed. Especially if they ignor the US constitution and the most fundemantal right we all have.

PeteWill said...

John, While I agree with you that Juan should not have been fired I must say that I don't read your blog to hear your political commentary. It's your blog so your certainly have the right to write what you want, but I don't like it. Juan's firing comment was not an opinion. He was stating what he feels, something that no doubt millions of Americans feels. He didn't try to justify his feelings, he actually came across as regretful that he has them. Since I can't stand NPR and it is a truly liberal organization run by people that I simply don't care for, the good news for me is that I won't miss Juan and I don't miss you on their broadcasts. That's because I don't listen.

Anonymous said...

Then you might want to revise your bio at the top of this page to remove your NPR credential. And also also ask NPR to remove your bio from its website. Because you wouldn't want to be associated in any way with an organization that just doesn't appreciate your greatness.

Anonymous said...

First of all, NPR is not liberal. is liberal. NPR is middle of the road. Rightwingers need to recalibrate their worldviews and understand that they are TO THE RIGHT.

But just because they aren't liberal doesn't make the firing hypocritical. The Nina Totenberg quote is pretty damning, but remember that Juan Williams was fired for repeated offenses. Maybe Totenberg was warned after this. It's the only similar thing I can find her saying.

But the most worrying thing of all is that rightwingers, who won't shut up about the Constitution, seem to be the least-informed about it. This is not a 1st Amendment issue!! Where in the Constitution does it say that freedom of speech means the right to a prominent job on a major news broadcaster? I'll give you a hint: it doesn't. Juan Williams is free to say what he wants to whomever he wants, whenever and however it pleases him.

It's like the further you get away from the center, the less people know about what they're talking about. Leftwingers and rightwingers: into the trash with the entire ideology-first crowd!

Anonymous said...

I have to strongly disagree with you in regards to Mike Pesca. Yeah he may have taken your gig and that sucks but he is one of the most original and witty commentators out there.

That may be hard to accept since he took your job but he's one of those people that always sums up want I was thinking and wanted to say and then makes me think about something like I hadn't thought of it before.

Anonymous said...

How can you be "wrong" about a feeling?

Anonymous said...

Loves me some Pesca. You don't have to put him down to make your point re Juan Williams. Tough to like your replacement but looks like NPR not the only one who has to get over themselves...just sayin'

KSchafer said...

I was very saddened by your commentary. I enjoyed you for years and years on NPR, thought that you fit in very well. You have a certain verbal style and fast-paced delivery that worked very well on the radio I thought. It's really the only place I've heard you, since I don't seem to ever watch golf, etc. on TV. So I read this blog, which seems a good alternative to hearing you on the radio (it has the same strong "voice" I remember from the radio). Now the sad part: this post read very much as "biting the hand that fed you". I too was upset when they fired Bob Edwards, and I think they act moronic on occasion, etc. , but I never got any direct benefit from NPR in terms of my career and book sales, as you did. I just think it would have been classier not to say all those things you did after benefitting so much. I guess to put it in perspective: I'm sure Bob Edwards would never have written a post like this. I'll keep reading, I think what you do is valuable. Sorry to wait until I have a real complaint to write -- I guess it's often like that.

Anonymous said...

John, you sound like a pathetic bitter man. You think you can carry Mike Pesca's jock strap? Don't think so.

Rambler said...

Lets put it in terms you understand. NPR owns the printing press.
Juan can go around spouting all the racist vitriol he wants to. NPR doesn't have to give him a platform to do it on.
As it turns out Fox is happy to give him such a platform, and at a handsome renumeration!