Oct 23, 2010

The take of a fellow journalist: Juan Williams should not have been fired, especially in a phone call. He should have been given the chance to reconsider and recast his comments. And, he should have been told to make a choice between working at NPR or Fox.

On the one hand, the whole matter is much ado about nothing, egos and sensibilities to toss on a scrap heap. On the other hand, this has badly undermined the credibility of NPR, and particularly its CEO, Vivian Schiller, and it tweaks public distrust of institutions just on the eve of the most important American election in decades.

And how easily the whole thing might have been avoided.

Had Williams run his feelings through his intellect he might have found an equally resonant but more profound point to make. He might have said something like, "Whenever I board a plane and see swarthy looking young men, in Muslim garb or not, I get nervous. How can you not help but think of 9/11? Or half a dozen other incidents....

"And by the way I know that the people to be afraid of are a tiny minority of Muslims (which Williams actually had said at one point) and that the Koran doesn't countenance terrorism. And I'm also aware that the drug cartel terrorist from Latin America may now be as dangerous as the radical member of Al Qaeda. 'Swarthy young men' describe a variety of threats....

"But there's something else here. This has been an interesting experience for me, a revelation, to feel afraid of someone on the basis of their clothing or skin color. I've written several books on civil rights but now I have a renewed sense of what it means to hate and be hated, and I am trying to take the lesson that this is a time, if there ever was, to use reason in relating to both people and events. Now is the time to resist an emotional response, especially to issues that we may not understand or have thought through."

Naturally, it's easy to cast what might have been said after the fact. On the other hand you might wonder why a pundit, who spends all his time thinking about such things didn't have a more thoughtful commentary at the ready.

There is something else to remember. This business is all in line with the collapse of a profession. Once upon a time, say 20 years ago, the career arc of a journalist was to be a reporter, on either a newspaper or a magazine, and then work his or her way up to be an editor, and then to be an editor at an ever larger, more prestigious publication.

Now the arc stretches from reporter to pundit. You may or may not pass through editorship. Not unlike the entertainment industry, where there's an arc from actor to director. The notion now is that the most sought after position is where you get to speak rather than to listen.

Once upon a time there was a check and balance within the profession. Lippmann and Murrow in their day were the authoritative voices of reason. Cronkite and Reston in theirs. Now it's cacophony, it's anybody's game. There is no wise voice saying, 'this is the way to handle this and the way to see this...'

Which brings us back to Juan Williams, himself. Now grasping at the role of whining victim and accepting his compensation: a $2 million contract from Fox. And for what? To be a political prisoner of war, to be a kept man, to be a respected and pitied scoundrel. To be used as a turncoat. In the end, he's a scoundrel, not for what he said about Muslims but for how he handled a misspoken word, for the example he sets, for his lack of integrity and common courage.

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