Vanity Fair Captured Seething (and Race-Based) Hatred of Juan Williams Inside NPR

Other than the snide dismissal of conservative NPR critics, David Margolick's Vanity Fair story on NPR really captured how much Juan Williams was despised by his NPR colleagues – and NPR listeners. Simply to anticipate such listener outrage, he wrote, one NPR editor created a kind of “Juan Williams Watch,” tuning in Fox regularly to hear, as she put it, whatever “stupid cockamamie” thing he might say, and which, therefore, she would have to defend.

“The thing nobody will say...is that Juan was here because he was black,” complained one, as the story painted a picture of Williams as a shiftless bum who coasted on his race and didn’t care to educate himself about the issues. Other blacks were catty. “Juan, gettin’ ugly,” e-mailed Farai Chideya. "Three times in our hour-long interview," Margolick noted, talk-show host Michel Martin called Williams “the most skillful manipulator of white people’s anxieties that I have ever met.”

 

Margolick reported: 

For NPR, after all, Williams was a three-fer: a star, black, and a conservative (at least relatively speaking), three commodities in perpetually short supply there. “We were punch-drunk about having him on board,” one NPR editor recalled...

Nor, co-workers say, did he do his homework: preparing for eight hours of radio a week is arduous, and he had too much else going on. One recalled telling him how laboriously Terry Gross got herself ready for Fresh Air, forever lugging home boxes of books and compact discs; “Juan really didn’t want to hear that,” he said. Off at Fox or the gym or on the road, he missed meetings. Unwilling to master them the way, say, Robert Siegel does, he mangled foreign names, then mangled them anew after every station break. The very stations that so loved him as a fund-raiser threatened to pull the program unless he was replaced.

The feeling that Juan was a Bush-loving, Fox-boosting conservative really caused storms of outrage inside the liberal bubble that is NPR:

Undoubtedly aided by his Fox connections, in January 2007 he scored NPR’s first interview with President George W. Bush in seven years. But some listeners thought him sycophantic, particularly when he told Bush that people were praying for him. (In his church, Williams explains, the parishioners prayed for everyone.)

Robert Siegel was sufficiently appalled—he “flipped out,” Williams says—to complain to NPR’s vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, about it. Nine months later, when the White House offered Williams a second Bush interview, Weiss nixed the idea: NPR could not let the White House dictate interlocutors. Williams took the interview to Fox, then told Howard Kurtz in the Post that he was “stunned” by what he described as NPR’s nonsensical decision. At NPR, too, people were stunned—by his effrontery—and he was almost fired. After prolonged negotiations, he signed off on another largely spoon-fed, begrudging non-apology, this one e-mailed to the staff.

Juan, gettin’ ugly, wonder if it will result in him severing ties, or mutual,” Farai Chideya, who hosted NPR’s program on black affairs, News & Notes, e-mailed a colleague....

“Juan’s contributions to NPR had been reduced steadily and significantly after years of problems on his part, going back prior to my interactions with him,” [Ellen] Weiss says. “It wasn’t personal; it wasn’t ideological; it was upholding NPR’s journalistic standards.” Around NPR, Williams’s deteriorating situation prompted disdain, or sympathy, or both, sometimes even from the same person. “The thing nobody will say. . . is that Juan was here because he was black,” one NPR veteran told me, adding that Williams was the beneficiary of the very liberalism he came to denounce. “We were carrying Juan. I can only imagine what that feels like. It must breed all kinds of ambivalent attitudes toward the place.”

Weekend Edition became Williams’s safe harbor, largely because its Saturday-morning host, Scott Simon, liked and respected him. “Juan is smart, funny, and an original thinker,” he says. “I thought everything that made him seem un-NPR to some, including his Fox affiliation, just made him more interesting.” Venues one might have thought welcoming, like Tell Me More, the multicultural program hosted by Michel Martin, proved inhospitable.

“Despite his big national reputation, he stopped reporting some time ago,” Martin says. “My mother has random opinions, too, but I don’t put her on the air.” Williams ascribes Martin’s hostility to pettiness, jealousy, and careerism: she felt she could advance herself by trashing him.

Vanity Fair published a separate page ("The Story of Juan") of Margolick's reporting on Williams at The Washington Post, before NPR. This passage really stands out, when liberal activists help dictate who and how the Post wll cover liberals:

Civil-rights groups often complained that their side of things went especially unrepresented or misrepresented in Williams’s stories. In September 1985, a dispute emerged when Ralph Neas, then head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, accused Williams of distorting his words in a news story. Neas was promptly summoned to the Post, where he found a tribunal—consisting of Ben Bradlee, Robert Kaiser, and Boisfeuillet Jones Jr.—then the Post’s executive editor, assistant managing editor for national news, and general counsel, respectively—convened, it appeared to Neas to, find out more about Williams’s work. What emerged, Neas recalled, was a “gentlemen’s agreement”: Williams would stop writing about civil rights. (Bradlee did not return messages; Kaiser declined to comment; Jones says he does not recall such a meeting.)

Williams disputes Neas’s story, and says that his contemporaneous notes proved Neas’s charge unfounded. Nonetheless, within a year he was moved to the Post’s less illustrious magazine.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis