The problem with the Juan Williams affair is not his comment to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly; that Muslims in full dress on airplanes make him nervous– but Fox News itself. Over the course of many years, as the nation became more and more deeply immersed in its cloud, NPR bent over backwards to ensure its reports were free from taint of opinion irrespective of ideological origin. NPR performs a crucial service to the public despite a constant barrage of attacks from the right.
Juan Williams wandered off the NPR reservation when he signed up to be a commentator for Fox News. The reaction by NPR brass– to fire him, for his comment to O’Reilly– was wrong. He could have remained a pundit on NPR, like the late Daniel Schorr, so long as he never reported news again. The problem is that Williams is identified by NPR audiences as a journalist.
Fox is the most popular cable “news” outlet on television. It uses poorly trained journalists with bones to grind and grievances that deliberately stir fact and fiction and base emotions of fear and flight. When I listen to Fox News and its deliberate confusion of opinion and journalism and its effect on audiences, I think of feedlot cattle circling into narrowing chutes.
Juan Williams is smart. I don’t fault smart journalists for embracing the Fox platform (and paycheck) to expose mass markets to intelligence different from the dim wits who comprise so much of the Fox “News” lineup. But this deliberate confusion of journalism with opinion on Fox and its provocative results have substantially damaged our national interests. NPR brass may have done the wrong thing in making Juan Williams a symbol of their difference with Roger Ailes, but I understand how they got there.
As to the substance of Williams’ view, I too have reservations when I see Muslim dress on an airplane. But my reaction is substantially different from what I feel when I see Muslim women in burkas. It is an important distinction, and ties back to the Williams affair. The headscarf and burka are both symbols of cultural identity, but the burka imposes cultural difference between the observed and the observer on a matter central to Western civilization: individual identity. So I may feel uneasy on an airplane with passengers in Muslim dress. The burka, on the other hand, is antithetical to my belief system and government that protects all our freedoms.
This point was driven home in Miami recently at a hot yoga class where profuse sweating is part of the practice. At the University of Miami, a fair number of foreign students are from Muslim nations. I recognized the name of a young man next to me as one, from Saudi Arabia. A lot of thoughts crossed my mind, but one that never crossed my mind was to feel uneasy in his presence. (Everyone in class wears some version of a bathing suit. I have also taken yoga classes with Muslim women who wore head scarfs.) I wondered, for instance, what this young man’s life would be like in the future if he returned to the Mideast, whether he would be able in his own country later in life to take a yoga class with people of other colors and cultures or social and economic standing or whether it would just be a strange memory of a time when he experienced America as an outsider.
I thought how economic desperation tears at the fabric of civil society and how poorly equipped we are to understand each other as people, in no small part because corporations have more power than individuals. Like the News Corporation. Parsing our differences requires tolerance, empathy and understanding. These are such fragile accomplishments compared to the brute force of bigots, idiots, arrogance and self-righteousness. I did not think of Juan Williams at all.
ALAN FARAGO is a board member of Friends of the Everglades, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org