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Juan Williams, Rick Sanchez, Helen Thomas et al. and the ‘Taliban-like drive’ for journalistic purity

Juan Williams became a statistic this week. Add his name to the list that includes Dave Weigel, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr and Rick Sanchez — and that’s just in the last four months — journalists who have either been fired for resigned for the things they’ve said. Each case is different, but the common refrain is this: should journalists be free to express personal opinions in a public manner, without their jobs being threatened? First, let’s ask it this way:

The reaction has been coming in from around the Web, from media watchdogs and even NPR’s ombudsman who writes that Williams’s firing was “poorly handled.”

  • Philadelphia Daily NewsWill Bunch: “NPR’s rash and ill-considered actions did not take a place in a vacuum. Increasingly, the public radio entity has become a leader (along with the Washington Post, which makes me think this is more of problem the closer one gets to or inside the Beltway) in an almost Taliban-like drive to enforce a brand of unrealistic-to-the-point-of-insane journalistic purity.”
  • TIME‘s James Poniewozik: “I hate that Williams would feel this about a Muslim friend of mine getting on his plane – but people do feel it, and I wish we could have conversations about all this dark matter in our collective brains without people demagoguing it, on the one hand, or being summarily fired on the other.”
  • Washington Post Editorial: His words could be offensive to some, if construed as an endorsement of negative stereotyping. But the full broadcast makes clear that Mr. Williams intended the opposite. To be sure, he struggled to get his point across, because host Bill O’Reilly kept interrupting him. But Mr. Williams did manage to observe that “we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy.” In short, Mr. Williams was attempting to do exactly what a responsible commentator should do: speak honestly without being inflammatory.
  • Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald: “If we’re going to fire or otherwise punish people for expressing Prohibited Ideas against various groups, it’s long overdue that those standards be applied equally to anti-Muslim animus, now easily one of the most — if not the single most — pervasive, tolerated and dangerous forms of blatant bigotry in America.”
  • CJR’s The Kicker blog: “…like other recent firings, the message sent out by the Williams episode is plainly the wrong one. The public radio giant is revered as one of the country’s few outlets for civil, orderly discourse—Williams’s comments would have provided the perfect opportunity to open a discussion with him and others about Islamaphobia in America.”
  • Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Jay Bookman: The truth is that as a commentator and analyst, Williams has been skating on his reputation for a long time, and the ice was getting thin. He had already given NPR cause for concern with previous statements on Fox, such as the time he inexplicably described Michelle Obama as “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.”

Williams was also on “Good Morning America” this morning telling George Stephanopoulos NPR was out to get him: “I knew about their antagonism towards Fox. And I knew that they really didn’t like it, and as I said I have been there more than 10 years and I have seen managers come and go and who dealt with this issue. This current crew was really getting vicious,” Williams said.

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