By David K. Shipler
Buried among the many dumb things that Ron Schiller of National Public Radio said on his secretly taped YouTube debut was one noble, principled statement that was right on target but has received little attention. It was a lucid denunciation of bigotry—anti-Muslim stereotyping in this case—and an affirmation of journalistic ethics that require reporters to leave their personal opinions out of their professional work.
Schiller, NPR’s chief fundraiser at the time, was talking about Juan Williams, whom NPR fired as an analyst last fall after he said that people in “Muslim garb” made him nervous on planes. In one sentence and a flurry of defensive media appearances, Williams legitimized the most forceful image of Muslims in the panoply of prejudices: that they are violent and deserve to be feared.
By implication, they also deserve to be heavily screened, closely interrogated, and perhaps even kept off planes and restricted in other ways. Williams didn’t go that far, and perhaps he would not, but he showed remarkable ignorance about the power of this sweeping generalization in a society still traumatized by 9/11. Neither his race nor his writings on the civil rights movement seem to have given him much insight into how bigotry works, how insidious and encrypted it can be, and how exposed Muslims are to its harms.
It has taken a long time in America to reach a stage where prejudiced statements about certain groups are denounced and penalized. We have gradually built a superstructure of inhibitions to expressing stereotypes about Jews and blacks, for example, enough to impede bigotry in overt forms. But Muslims have not yet been brought under the umbrella of protection. NPR deserved credit for trying to do so, although it can hardly stand against the onslaught: Witness the slandering of Muslims in the House hearings on their supposed radicalization.
The fact that different groups are shielded differently could be seen in the varied reactions to the departure of other media figures in the months before the Williams incident. In August, 2010, Dr. Laura Schlessinger left her call-in show after a black woman, married to a white man, phoned to complain that her husband was using the “N-word.” Schlessinger replied: “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is n****r, n****r, n****r. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.” The caller, saying she was appalled at Schlessinger using the epithet, got this retort: “N****r, n****r, n****r is what you hear on HBO,” then added: “Don’t take things out of context. Don’t NAACP me.” After the call ended, Schlessinger declared: “If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, don't marry outside of your race.” She apologized the next day but retired from her show.
Outside a White House Jewish Heritage Celebration on May 27, 2010, UPI’s veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, was fired after a brief television interview that went like this:
Q: Any comments on Israel?
Thomas: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.
Q: Oooooh. Any better comments on Israel?
Thomas: Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland.
Q: So where should they go, what should they do?
Thomas: Go home.
Q: Where’s their home?
Thomas: Poland. Germany.
Q: So the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany.
Thomas: And America and everywhere else.
On a radio talk show in September 2010, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez got into a repartee about the comedian Jon Stewart, who was lampooning him frequently on The Daily Show. Sanchez called Stewart a bigot who was comfortable only with people like himself. As a Hispanic, Sanchez reported experiencing substantial prejudice. When the host, Pete Dominick, pointed out that Stewart was Jewish and that he would naturally identify with people subjected to discrimination, Sanchez slid very close to the ancient stereotype of Jews as all-powerful, controlling. “Very powerless people,” he said sarcastically, snickering. “Please, what, are you kidding? I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority? Yeah.”
Sanchez was fired. Significantly, there was no upsurge of outrage at Schlessinger’s departure over her use of the N-word (even though she was only commenting crudely on its use by blacks), no uproar over Thomas’s dismissal, and only a minor rush of complaints about Sanchez’s. They had all insulted or generalized about groups that have acquired at least a modicum of protection: African-Americans and Jews.
But when Juan Williams was fired for stereotyping Muslims, a relatively unprotected group, Republicans rallied to his defense, vilified NPR, and mobilized to cut off funds for the network and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. Fox News gave him a $2 million contract, and huge numbers of Americans expressed their indignation.
It is worth looking closely at the offending remarks, made to Bill O’Reilly on Fox, where Williams also worked as a contributor. “Look Bill, I’m not a bigot,” Williams said, an introductory remark that usually seeks absolution for the bigoted remark about to come. “You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I gotta tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous.”
To give Williams his due, he then tried to caution against indulging in the sweeping generalizations to which he had just given license. He quoted President Bush as saying that we were not in a war against Islam. He attempted to say that not all Muslims should be classified as extremists, just as all Christians shouldn’t be blamed for the Christian Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. But O’Reilly followed his usual pattern of talking over his guest, insistently interrupting so that Williams had trouble making a coherent point.
Williams might have cleaned up his record later, but he passed up the opportunity. On an hour-long appearance on public radio’s Diane Rehm Show, he stuck stubbornly to his line that he had every right to his opinions, and listeners had every right to know them. Perhaps, but there is no constitutional right to be an NPR analyst, and the uninformed nature of his remark—if nothing else, did he not know that the 19 hijackers had carefully dressed in Western “garb”?—underscored his lack of qualifications for that job, something that NPR listeners had understood for a long time.
NPR hadn’t been comfortable with Williams’s opinionated appearances on Fox and his lackluster performance on NPR, and this straw broke the camel’s back. The result was an undignified spectacle by NPR’s leadership—dismissal over the phone without giving Williams a chance to explain or amend, and an uncouth comment by NPR president Vivian Schiller (now also fired) that he should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.”
But bad form shouldn’t overcome solid substance, and it took Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian) to pull things back into perspective, for the hidden camera of the right-wing stingers posing as Arab donors.
Schiller had this to say, in a little soliloquy that the sting operators must have found so outrageous that they left it in their heavily edited clip: “In all of the uproar, for example, around Juan Williams, what NPR did I’m very proud of, and what NPR stood for I’m very proud of. And what NPR stood for is non-racist, non-bigoted, straightforward telling of the news. Our feeling is that if a person expresses his or her opinion, which anyone is entitled to do in a free society, they are compromised as a journalist. They can no longer fairly report. And the question we asked internally was, can Juan Williams, when he makes a statement like he made, can he report to the Muslim population and be believed? And the answer is no. He lost all credibility, and that breaks your basic ethics as a journalist.”
Well said. Incidentally, Schiller also refused to take the stingers’ bait to denounce Jewish donors as attempting to tilt NPR coverage toward Israel, stating that no such attempt had come to his attention. Unfortunately for him, these stood out starkly as sensible comments amid his own stereotyping of conservatives as gun-toting, anti-intellectual racists (in some cases quoting others approvingly)—not to mention his argument that NPR would do better without government funding. Evidently, he will get his wish.