Clarity Missing in Debate over Free Speech

Nov 05

In AltMuslim. October 27, 2010

Juan Williams is neither a racist nor a bigot. But by perpetuating negative stereotypes he breached the ethics of fairness, crucial ingredients to succeed as a journalist. His firing from NPR, while admittedly handled in a clumsy way, was ultimately the right action. At a time when public discourse has descended to freighting levels of incivility, holding professionals accountable to the highest ethical standards may not be a bad thing. We can and should have vigorous debates. But statements that perpetuate negative stereotypes simply have no place in a civilized society. Just as a doctor or teacher will be rendered ineffective if they were to express their “true feelings” about every situation they encounter, so is true for journalists. Like every other specialists we expect journalists to be professionals who provide us with accurate accounts and unbiased analysis of news. Public expressions of their own biases render them ineffective.

In firing Juan Williams, NPR did not violate his First Amendment rights. NPR asserted its right that the views of those who speak from its platform are consistent with its perceived brand of impartiality. In contrast, Fox News felt that Williams’ opinions were consistent with its brand of hard-charging opinion making and immediately acted to reward him with a lucrative contract. Thus both NPR and Fox made decisions that were consistent with their respective world views.

Consumers make similar choices. Those who prefer thoughtful discussions are likely to be supportive of firing Juan Williams, because they perceive that he violated his fiduciary duties. In contrast, people who enjoy the daily shout-fest at Fox News will welcome the addition of Williams to its all-star lineup of over-the-top opinion makers. NPR wants sanity, Fox News craves controversy. To each their respective audience. To each their own brand. The highest rated NPR show boasts over 13 million listeners while the highest rated show on Fox News averages slightly over 3 million viewers. In contrast, NBC Nightly News average over 7 million viewers. More Americans clearly prefer civility over rancor.

The firing of Juan Williams, has unleashed a firestorm of protest from the far-right with Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich leading the charge to cut-off public funding of NPR. Yet they stood silent when for Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr were fired/resigned for making stereotypical and insensitive comments about Jews. Also disturbing is the double standards of groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations, which recently honored Helen Thomas and yet lead the charge against Juan Williams. Either all such firings/resignations are an outrage, for they purport to curb free speech or they are the right thing to do because they preserve trust in journalism. One cannot have it both ways.

In the greater scheme of things such firings may not necessarily improve journalism. Because it only pushes harsh and insensitive opinion making to the margins without addressing the root causes that led to such erroneous opinions. Juan Williams expressed fear of people in a “Muslim garb.” What did he mean by “Muslim garb?” Did the 9-11 hijackers wear any “Muslim garb”? And even if they did, what connection does a dress have with criminal behavior? Besides the sheer idiocy of attempting to define “Muslim garb” Williams is also guilty of trying to legitimize the irrational fear of American Muslims, a group that is already negatively perceived and against whom hate crimes are on the rise.

Institutions such as NPR by trying to be impartial are attempting to build a firewall against this bigotry. Fox News on the other hand profits from fear-mongering. This election season we have already seen a spike in orchestrated demonization of Latinos and Muslims. So long as consumers reward Fox News for its incessant attack on whoever is the flavor of the day, Fox News has no incentive to change. The excuse that one is expressing their “feelings” is not a substitute for civility. A democracy suffers when our public discourses become loud, cantankerous and caustic. When moderate voices vacate the field we are left with extreme opinion making, which is unlikely to produce sustainable solutions for the many problems that confronts us as a nation.

Leave a Reply