National Public Radio was inundated with negative criticism after firing veteran news analyst Juan Williams last week after he appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” and made remarks about the nervousness that, for him, accompanies the presence of people dressed in Muslim garb on airplanes.
The decision to fire Williams, a regular Fox News commentator, was an act of censorship that sent a strong public message that the organization is intolerant of politically incorrect and honest opinions from their affiliated journalists.
NPR was in a position where some public response needed to occur; Williams’ employment by NPR was referenced during his appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.” However, it acted impulsively by ending Williams’ contract and violated his right to free speech.
As a respected news medium, NPR, which is partially publicly funded, had an obligation to respond to Williams’ comments in a way that addressed the content of his comments and their relevance to the public directly.
In his appearance on the show, Williams appeared thoughtful and honest when delivering his message that keeping quiet about unpopular or controversial issues is detrimental to progress and problem solving.
Williams, in the interview with Bill O’Reilly, made it clear that his comments were strictly personal trepidations. Williams used his comment about Muslims on airplanes as an example of the kind of conversations that are stifled because of their politicly incorrect nature. I agree with his message that journalists, politicians and others cannot be afraid to speak about unfavorable or uncomfortable issues.
It is certainly unfair and ignorant to attribute terrorist identities with Muslims, but Williams had a right to freely voice his opinion, especially in his position at Fox News.
Statements such as those made by Williams provide an opportunity to open controversial public conversations about topics, which most people are too afraid to voice. There is an opportunity for the public to work to bring about social change.
The media has an obligation to bring awareness to cultural issues and to educate the public about the intricacies of such issues. NPR did neither by firing Williams. Instead of countering Williams’ claims with advocacy and conversation, NPR severed its connection to the controversy.
Critics claim NPR has polarized itself as a liberal news organization, with a hasty desire to stanch free speech when the speech conflicts with its political agenda.
Furthermore, a campaign to eliminate public funding for the station and its affiliates is underway.
The negative reaction from the public as a result of the firing is proof that freedom of speech is not a right with which to tamper and that media bias is viewed adversely.
While it is promising that such a strong response was illicited, it is equally important for a passionate public response to addressing the issue of the false and negative generalizations made about Muslims in America.
NPR may have ruined its reputation with its hasty decision to fire Williams, proof that emotional and quick reactions often result in poor decision making.
We can’t be afraid to be critical or politcally incorrect, but we must simultaneously be informed and prudent.