NPR’s federal funding questioned after analyst fired

Friday, October 22, 2010

WASHINGTON — Conservatives and some liberals say NPR went too far in firing longtime news analyst Juan Williams for saying he gets nervous on planes when he sees people in Muslim dress, and at least one U.S. senator said he would propose cutting federal funding to the network.

Muslim groups were outraged, saying that Williams' remarks Oct. 18 on Fox's “The O'Reilly Factor” endorsed the idea that all Muslims should be viewed with suspicion. Some opinions Williams expressed on shows by his other employer, Fox News, over the years had already strained his relationship with NPR to the point that the public radio network asked him to stop using its name when he appeared on O'Reilly's show.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said yesterday about the firing that controversial opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts. Still, NPR was soundly criticized for axing Williams' contract for stating a personal feeling in an interview in which he also said it was important to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists and to protect civil rights.

“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,” Williams said. “But when I get on a 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.”

In response to the firing, South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint planned to introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR, his spokesman Wesley Denton confirmed last night. Denton said the senator would expand upon his proposal in a statement on Friday.

Federal grants provide less than 2% — or $3.3 million — of NPR's $166 million annual budget. It is funded primarily by its affiliates, corporate sponsors and major donors. State and local governments also provide some funds. Federal funding of public media has long been questioned by some in Congress.

Schiller said Williams had veered from journalistic ethics several times before the Oct. 18 comments. She said whatever feelings Williams has about Muslims should be between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist — take your pick.” In a post later on NPR's website — where comments were heavily against Williams' firing — she apologized for making the “thoughtless” psychiatrist remark.

On his broadcast yesterday, O'Reilly blasted NPR for what he called “a disgraceful decision” and called on Schiller to resign.

“Ms. Schiller is a pinhead,” said O'Reilly.

NPR had no comment about his remarks, said spokeswoman Anna Christopher.

Williams appeared shaken during his appearance on the show, and when shown Schiller's videotaped comments about him talking to a psychiatrist, asked incredulously: “Now I'm mentally unstable?”

He and O'Reilly both said they believed Williams was fired from NPR because of his association with Fox News. The network later announced it had re-signed Williams, who has been with Fox since 1997, to a multiyear deal that would give him an expanded role — and that Williams would host O'Reilly's show tonight.

“You know what? I didn't fit into their box,” Williams said of NPR.

In a memo to her staff and affiliate stations, Schiller said Williams' comments violated NPR's code of ethics, which says journalists should not participate in media “that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

Williams stood by his remarks yesterday. He told Fox News his statement was not bigoted, as he said NPR news executive Ellen Weiss implied Oct. 20 when she fired him by phone.

“I said, 'You mean I don't even get the chance to come in and we do this eyeball-to-eyeball, person-to-person, have a conversation? I've been there more than 10 years,'” Williams said. He said Weiss responded that “there's nothing you can say that would change my mind.”

Williams made the comments at issue while discussing whether O'Reilly was wrong to have said “Muslims killed us on 9/11″ during an appearance last week on ABC's “The View.” O'Reilly's comment prompted co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk off the set, but Goldberg defended Williams yesterday.

“The point he was trying to say is, 'I get nervous,' and that's OK,” Goldberg said. “Firing him for saying that, I think, is kind of ridiculous.”

Republicans denounced NPR's decision. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News that Congress should investigate NPR for censorship and consider cutting off its public funding.

“Juan Williams: Going Rogue,” former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said yesterday in a Twitter message. “NPR should receive NO fed tax dollars if it operates as intolerant, private radio. Mr. President, what say you?”

In June, Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn introduced legislation to cut funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2012. The bill is in committee. The corporation is the primary channel for federal funds distributed to public media, including NPR.

Before Williams was fired, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said a news organization would not tolerate such commentary from a journalist about other racial, ethnic or religious minority groups. Early this month, CNN fired anchor Rick Sanchez for comments that included questioning whether Jews should be considered a minority.

“NPR should address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats,” CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said.

Society of Professional Journalists President Hagit Limor said yesterday that although the group supported Williams' right to free speech, “Based on our code of ethics, which advises avoiding stereotyping for any reason … we understand the rationale that may be behind NPR's decision.”

Williams said today that he believed NPR had been looking for a reason to fire him and used his Muslim comments as an excuse to do so. On ABC's “Good Morning America,” he said NPR had wanted to fire him for some time because it disapproved of his appearances on Fox News shows.

“I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me,” he said today. “They were uncomfortable with the idea that I was talking to the likes of Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity.” Hannity hosts another Fox show.

Also on “Good Morning America,” Williams said Schiller made a personal attack against him because she had a weak argument to justify his firing.

“I think it's a very weak case,” he said. “And so ultimately I think what she had to do then is to make it an ad hominem or personal attack.”

NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard, writing today on NPR's website, said that although she agreed with his firing, “I think NPR owed him a chance to explain himself.

“I’m not privy to the why this announcement was so hastily made,” Shepard wrote. “NPR could have waited until his contract ran out, or possibly suspended him pending a review. Either way, a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.

“Even though NPR handled this situation badly, the fact remains that NPR must uphold its journalistic standards, which, after all, provide the basis that earned public radio's reputation for quality.”

On Oct. 18, the Open Society Foundations, run by left-wing billionaire George Soros, announced a $1.8 million grant to NPR to hire more journalists to cover state governments nationwide.

Williams was a longtime reporter, columnist and editorial writer at The Washington Post. He has written extensively on the civil rights movement, including a book on the African-American religious experience and a biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice.

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