Stephen M. Walt

Another one bites the dust (updated)

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard that NPR has fired commentator Juan Williams, for making a bigoted statement about Muslims on Fox News yesterday. William thus becomes the latest in a series of prominent media figures being canned for saying something offensive. The first was CNN’s Octavia Nasr, who was canned for tweeting some words that ...

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard that NPR has fired commentator Juan Williams, for making a bigoted statement about Muslims on Fox News yesterday. William thus becomes the latest in a series of prominent media figures being canned for saying something offensive.

The first was CNN’s Octavia Nasr, who was canned for tweeting some words that conveyed a certain degree of respect for an Islamic cleric associated with Hezbollah. Next came Helen Thomas, who lost her job when she was caught on video saying that Jews should "get out of Palestine and go back to Europe." Next came CNN’s Rick Sanchez, who made some stupid and offensive remarks about Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, along with some equally ill-chosen words about the privileged position of Jews in America today.

And now there’s Williams, who in the midst of a discussion of Muslims in America told Bill O’Reilly:

"I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

I suspect Williams was being honest — if unwisely — and I’ll bet he’s not the only non-Muslim who’s had similar thoughts. That doesn’t justify what he said in the slightest, however, and I’m glad that his statement was promptly and broadly condemned. 

But frankly, this whole business is getting ridiculous. With the exception of Nasr, whose brief tweet was in fact not offensive when properly understood, I think all of these people should be ashamed and embarrassed by what they said. But I wouldn’t have fired any of them, particularly if they had been willing to make a prompt and heartfelt apology. None of us is perfect, and anybody who talks for a living is bound to say a few things that they might immediately regret.

And the problem is now snowballing, because if you fire a few people for saying something offensive about one group, then people in other groups will immediately (and correctly) accuse you of a double-standard if you don’t mete out a similar punishment when someone says something equally foolish about them. That’s precisely what happened to Williams: because Nasr, Thomas, and Sanchez got canned, the only way NPR could avoid accusations of a double-standard was by dumping him. 

This hair-trigger sensitivity, which demands that stupid or ill-advised statements are grounds for immediate dismissal, will only encourage commentators to say less and less about important or controversial subjects, lest they mis-speak on some occasion or otherwise become the targets of an organized campaign of intimidation.

And notice where this sort of sensitivity is not taking root.  As near as I can tell, Rush Limbaugh’s employer isn’t contemplating firing him for his numerous hateful remarks, and you don’t see Fox News censuring Bill O’Reilly for the inflammatory remarks he recently uttered on The View. If this sort of thing keeps up, conservative commentators will be free to demonize whomever they want, while everyone else is busily walking on eggshells.  (Update: in a move that should surprise no one, and confirms the basic point of this paragraph FoxNews has given Juan Williams a brand-new three-year contract.)

Postscript: Some readers may think there is an inconsistency between this post and my earlier criticisms of Harvard’s decisions to honor Martin Peretz despite his own racist remarks ("Muslim life is cheap" etc.) on his blog. Not so. For one thing, Peretz’s remark was not an isolated incident or a case of ill-chosen words; it was merely the latest in long series of similar statements. Second, Peretz’s supposed apology was minimal at best, and he defended his claim about Muslim life as a matter of fact, not opinion. Finally, nobody was talking about firing Peretz; the question was whether Harvard ought to valorize him by accepting a $650,000 gift in his name. For the record, I don’t think Harvard should name a scholarship fund after Thomas, Sanchez, or Williams either.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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