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Firing Juan

— Every once in a while National Public Radio steps into something big, soft and smelly and they did it this week when they fired news analyst Juan Williams.

In case you don’t know, Williams was on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News talking about Muslims and terrorist attacks. He said, “When I get on a plane, I’ve got to tell you if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Taken out of context, it was a stupid comment. Taken in the context of his whole debate with O’Reilly, it was still prejudicial and nonsensical. But it was tempered by his stated belief that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. He said blaming Muslims for 9-11 was like blaming Christians for the terrorist attack of Timothy McVeigh.

So why did NPR fire Juan Williams? The network’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, said it was NOT because he expressed a stupid opinion. It was because he expressed any opinion whatsoever.

“Our reporters, our hosts and our news analysts should not be injecting their own views about a controversial issue as part of their story. They should be reporting the story," she said.

NPR calls Juan Williams a “news analyst,” not a commentator. Those are supposed to be different things and Williams (we’re told) committed the sin of stepping over the line that separates them. Unfortunately, it’s a fine line and I think most journalists would be hard pressed to explain the difference between one and the other.

Maybe an analyst can tell you why we did a troop surge in Afghanistan, but he’s not allowed to tell you whether it was a good idea.

But such subtle journalistic delineations are beyond the ken of your average news consumer. All he or she knows is that Williams was fired for appearing on Fox News and for making a politically incorrect statement, and that must mean that NPR is a slave to political correctness.

I do wonder why NPR suddenly got so upset at Juan Williams for stating opinions. Williams has made a career of being a TV pundit. Has he never expressed an opinion on the war in Iraq or American health care reform? I’m just asking!

I’m guessing that NPR didn’t like Juan Williams’ approach to his job and they finally got fed up. It’s not unlike what happened in the case of Bob Edwards, who was put out to pasture after many years of hosting Morning Edition. NPR management got tired of Edwards refusing to work with a co-host and sleep-walking through his air shift, and they finally had enough.

The difference, in the case of Juan Williams, was the network’s hasty, poor timing. If this was the final straw, they could have waited for the controversy about his statement to blow over and then given Juan the ax in the dark of night.

For me, the larger issue is NPR’s approach to journalism. Isn’t commentary part of the legitimate practice of journalism? Juan Williams may not be the best example. But what about Mike Royko? What about Jimmy Breslin? What about Maureen Dowd? Commentary has a long, proud history in this business, and I’d like to know why NPR considers it anathema to its news culture.

Because – let’s face it – a lot of people think NPR has a liberal bias anyway, and the firing of Juan Williams has simply made them believe they were right all along.

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