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.