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From AJR,   September 2010  issue

Moving too Fast   

Web exclusive
NPR's mishandling of the Juan Williams imbroglio


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

When you're making an important decision, it's often a good idea to take some time and think it through. While acting really quickly can look decisive, it also can look impetuous and lead to unforeseen consequences – and be profoundly misguided (see: Obama administration and Shirley Sherrod).

Hardly rocket science. But NPR certainly lost sight of these principles when it moved so quickly to jettison commentator Juan Williams.

There's no doubt that Williams' comment that he got "worried" and "nervous" when he saw people in "Muslim garb" on an airplane was offensive. But was it so beyond the pale that it merited the death penalty, before the trial, no less? I'm not so sure.

Sure, it's particularly off-putting to hear this kind of stereotyping coming from an African American male, a group that no doubt leads the league in being stereotyped. And it was also off the mark – most of your terrorists, Muslim and otherwise, don't advertise their presence with their costumes, but rather try to blend in with the crowd.

But that's not all Williams said during his appearance on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor." He also said, "Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy."

In other words, he was speaking out against the kind of discriminatory stereotyping that he admitted to indulging in himself.

Perhaps NPR should have disciplined Williams in some manner for his clearly out-of-line remark. But it seems to me it owed its longtime contributor the opportunity to discuss the situation in person.

Instead, NPR fired him over the phone, the moral equivalent of breaking up with somebody on Facebook.

In an interview on Fox today, Williams said that in a phone conversation about the episode with Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, she told him that the decision to fire him had already been made.

Williams says he told Weiss, " 'I don't even get the chance to come in and we do this eyeball to eyeball, person to person?' "Williams says Weiss replied, " 'There's nothing you can say that will change my mind, this has been decided above me and we're terminating your contract.' "

The whirlwind was quick to develop. Many speculate that NPR, clearly uncomfortable with Williams' dual role as a pundit on Fox and NPR, saw the gaffe as a convenient excuse to unload him.

More significant, the brouhaha was red meat for NPR critics who deride it as leftist, politically correct megaphone. Right wing worthies from Sarah Palin to Mike Huckabee to Newt Gingrich took to battering the network like a piñata.

NPR bought itself a lot of grief by acting with more haste than wisdom.