NPR fired Williams for remarks he made on the Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor in which he said he sometimes felt uncomfortable flying on airplanes with individuals who, because of their appearance, were identifiably Muslim. While this was clearly Williams’ personal opinion, in dismissing him NPR cited an editorial policy that prohibits its commentators from expressing opinions on other news programs that they would not be allowed to express on an NPR broadcast.
Pundits on the right have called Williams’ firing a clear case of censorship, if not hypocrisy, by NPR, noting that his comments are protected by the First Amendment (a protection which means the government cannot sanction Williams for his comments; his employer certainly can). Williams, in a subsequent appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, contends that the higher-ups at NPR had been looking for an excuse to fire him ever since he also had become a paid commentator on Fox News. NPR’s unease with Williams working for both networks was well known; it had reportedly asked that he not be identified as an NPR analyst when appearing on Fox.
I don’t believe Williams is a bigot. A respected African American journalist, he also has authored notable books about civil rights and black culture in America, as well as a biography of Thurgood Marshall. Given his background, it may be safe to assume that Williams understands the inherent injustice of judging someone by appearance alone – which is perhaps why his comments about Muslims surprised many.
I’m in no position to judge Williams’ remarks, and frankly, believe the arguments made by NPR and Fox and others are correct in some but not all aspects. What I fear is that these arguments will quickly be reduced to sound bytes and served up with great helpings of opinion and angst, on both the right and left; the debate will become the story and the line will continue to blur.