NPR's Glaring Double Standard Begs the Question: Is Juan Williams the Next Shirley Sherrod?

At NPR, you cannot admit your prejudices, even in the context of disavowing them. You can, however, suggest that a U.S. Senator and his grandchildren should be infected with the AIDS virus, claim the world would be a better place if everyone who believes in the Christian rapture did not exist, claim that Newt Gingrich seeks "a civil way of lynching people," and, as long as you are just a freelancer, call for Rush Limbaugh's death.

That is National Public Radio's editorial (double) standard. NPR fired analyst Juan Williams, an 10 year employee of the organization, for admitting that he gets "nervous" when he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane. But NPR employees (and a freelancer in one case) have made each of those statements above without suffering the swift action brought against Williams.

Andrei Codrescu, who was on contract with NPR at the time, said in 1995 that "The evaporation of four million people who believe this crap [the Rapture] would leave the world an instantly better place." He later apologized, and NPR left it at that.

The same year, during a heated national debate over federal funding for AIDS research, NPR reporter Nina Totenberg stated:

I think [Sen. Jesse Helms] ought to be worried about what's going on in the Good Lord's mind, because if there is retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will get it.

The year prior, another NPR reporter, Sunni Khalid, said the following on C-SPAN:

I think there's a big difference when people told Father Aristide to sort of moderate his views, they were concerned about people being dragged through the streets, killed and necklaced. I don't think that is what Newt Gingrich has in mind. I think he's looking at a more scientific, a more civil way of lynching people.

Gingrich wasn't the only conservative figure to earn NPR's ire. A reporter for a local public radio station in Santa Monica, CA and freelance journalist with NPR fantasized on the infamous JournoList about watching Rush Limbaugh die while "laugh[ing] loudly like a maniac and watch[ing] his eyes bug out." The radio station disavowed itself from that comment, claiming it "has, and always will be, dedicated to civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas."

If only NPR felt the same way. According to Williams, NPR really had no interest in why Williams made the comment he did or in how it advanced the conversation about radical Islam. He said the following on Thursday morning on Fox:

Later Thursday, Williams published a column at Fox News's website, in which he claimed that his comments "are being distorted by the self-righteous ideological, left-wing leadership at NPR."

They are taking bits and pieces of what I said to go after me for daring to have a conversation with leading conservative thinkers. They loathe the fact that I appear on Fox News…

 And now they have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Williams also reiterated in his column that he had expressed his own prejudices only in the process of insisting that Americans needed to resist the urge to discriminate against the Muslim community.

 …I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without fear having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.

Bill O'Reilly, on whose show Williams made the controversial remarks that got him fired, berated NPR on Thursday. NPR "is not a news organization," he claimed. "It's basically a left-wing outfit that wants one opinion." O'Reilly said he will formally call for legislation defunding NPR on his show tonight.

 It's not out of character for NPR. They've been trying to get rid of Juan for a while because Juan is associated with the Fox News Channel, and NPR is a - it's not a news organiation, alright? It's basically a left-wing outfit that wants one opinion. If you listen to NPR across the country, the nationals coming out of Wasington, their feeds to the locals, it's almost 100% liberal. Why is it liberal?

 I'm calling immediately, and I'm going to make a big deal out of this on the Factor, for an immediate suspension of every taxpayer dollar going into the National Public Radio outfit.

Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and NB publisher Brent Bozell have also called on Congress to reconsider or withdraw completely its support for NPR, which only makes up about 2 percent of the radio station's budget.

NPR claims that it fired Williams not because of any of his political views, but because he violated the organization's editorial policies. So why, one can't help but wonder, did NPR not fire an employee for, say, wishing death on an entire sect of Christianity?

Veteran media critic Howard Kurtz is skeptical as well, simply because Williams's statement was not a fireable offense, to his mind. Kurtz wrote in his Daily Beast column today:

What Williams said makes me uncomfortable, but it isn’t close to being a firing offense—not for someone who is paid for his opinions…

Is [his statement] blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few extremists? Sure. But Williams was describing his feelings, not saying that Muslims should be singled out for profiling or otherwise discriminated against.

He went on to caution against blaming all members of a religion:

“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.”

And indeed, Williams cautioned against acting on any inherent biases against Muslims. He admitted his own prejudices, but then stressed the importance of overcoming them. No matter - NPR fired him for admitting them at all. The controversy is, in this sense, strikingly similar to that of Shirley Sherrod's firing in August,

Like Williams, Sherrod admitted that in her capacity at the USDA, she had been tempted to discriminate against white farmers, but that she had overcome that urge. She was fired based on reaction to the former point. When it emerged that she had explicitly advocated overcoming one's prejudices, she immediately went from perpetrator to victim, and commentators blasted every media outlet (and there were quite a few) that pushed the story without adequately seeking out the context of her remarks.

So if Williams's comments cannot reasonably be interpreted as in any way advocating discrimination against Muslims, why was he fired? O'Reilly said he thinks NPR just has a bone to pick with Fox. Kurtz agrees:

I suspect that if he’d said the same thing to Charlie Rose, rather than on the O’Reilly Factor, he’d still have his radio job.

There’s no constitutional right to a high-profile media job, so NPR certainly has the right to dump Williams. The question is whether he was axed for what he said or where he said it.