NPR has hired the multi-national law firm of Weil, Gotshal and Manges to conduct an internal investigation of the firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams on October 20, after Williams told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on the air that "I'm not a bigot" but that if Williams sees people on a plane, "who are in Muslim garb . . .I get worried, I get nervous."
Chairman of the NPR Board, Dave Edwards, made the announcement Thursday morning at a public session of an NPR Board meeting held at the network's Washington D.C. offices. Edwards said that Weil, Gotshal was hired as they are "highly regarded with considerable expertise in governance issues." Edwards said that the review is underway and "has no deadline," and that it will involve the Weil, Gotshal team speaking with those involved with the firing, reviewing internal documents, and making a report to the board. Weil, Gotshal has done work for NPR over the years, including fighting the record industry rate increases for streaming music on the web.
[Efforts to reach Juan Williams for comment on the announcement of the NPR internal investigation were underway at press time, and his response or comments will be posted when received.]
The Williams firing by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller led to an unprecedented blowback of controversy for the public radio network. Office phone lines reportedly rang "non-stop like an alarm bell with no off button," according to NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who wrote at the time that "We've received more than 8,000 emails, a record with nothing a close second." The tsunami of electronic messages, mostly against but some supporting the firing, crashed the NPR "Contact Us" form on the network's web site. NPR also had to increase security to check visitors to the network's offices after receiving a bomb threat following the announcement by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that he was "taking NPR down" over the Williams firing.
Williams was a writer at the Washington Post from 1976 to 2000, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He had been at NPR for a decade, starting off as a host of the daily news and opinion program, "Talk of the Nation," and later as an NPR senior correspondent. Following his outspoken remarks on the Fox News Channel as a paid commentator, and in newspaper opinion pieces, such as saying that first lady Michelle Obama has "got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going," due to her critical observations about the U.S., NPR changed Williams' title to "senior news analyst" and asked Fox not to identify him as an NPR analyst on the air.
Williams' statement, which led to his termination, was made as part of a round table discussion on "The O'Reilly Factor," regarding Bill O'Reilly's controversial comments on the ABC news/chat show, "The View," where O'Reilly famously stated that "the Muslims really killed us on 9/11," resulting in co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walking off the set (but not before Goldberg said "that is such bullsh*t.") Host Barbara Walters then reprimanded O'Reilly for his comments, calling them "extremist" and he apologized to her on air.
In that context, Williams appeared on Fox two days later, as part of a six-minute segment focusing on O'Reilly's comments -- and the argle-bargle that ensued -- on The View. Williams described what he would later say was a honest experience, which he also clarified with his other statements in the O'Reilly segment that seem to have been lost in the "sound bite" coverage that followed:
O'REILLY: Continuing now with our lead story, danger from the Muslim world. Joining us from Washington FOX analysts Mary Katharine Ham and Juan Williams. So, Juan, I got to tell everybody, own up to this, that talking points memo was really written by Alan Colmes. So, where am I going wrong there, Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don't want to get your ego going. But I think you're right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. 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. But when I get on the 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.
Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts. But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it's not a war against Islam. President Bush went to a mosque -
O'REILLY: Well, there isn't any theology involved in this at all from my perspective, Juan. But you live in the liberal precincts. You actually work for NPR, OK?
O'REILLY: And it's not about -- it's about politics as I said. But -- my analysis is that this Israel thing and that liberals feel that United states is somehow guilty in the world, of exploitation and backing the wrong side, and it makes it easier for them to come up with this kind of crazy stuff that, well, you can't really say the Muslims attacked us on 9/11.
WILLIAMS: No, but what Barbara Walters said to you -
O'REILLY: Were they Norwegians? I mean, come on.
WILLIAMS: Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.
O'REILLY: But it's not at that level. It doesn't rise near to that level.
WILLIAMS: Correct. That's -- and when you said in the talking points memo a moment ago that there are good Muslims, I think that's a point, you know?
O'REILLY: But everybody knows that, Juan. I mean, what are, in 3rd grade here or what?
WILLIAMS: No, you don't -- but you got to be -- this is what Barbara Walters was saying -
O'REILLY: I got to be careful, you just said it. I got to be careful. I have got to qualify everything 50 times. You know what, Juan? I'm not doing it anymore. I'm not doing that anymore.
WILLIAMS: OK. So, be yourself. Take responsibility.
O'REILLY: But I'm not going to say, oh, it's only a few. It's only a tiny bit. It's not, Juan. It's whole nations, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, whole nations.
WILLIAMS: Bill, here's a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby's neck and says he's attacking him or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero -
HAM: That guy works at a liberal -
O'REILLY: Yes, he was a crackpot. Look, Americans are smart enough to know, Juan.
HAM: But I don't think -- the point is the rhetoric was not pushing him to do that.
WILLIAMS: I don't know what is in that guy's head. But I'm saying, we don't want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy. We've got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.
O'REILLY: He is a nut. And I said that about the guy in Florida -- who wanted to burn the Koran. I came down on him like crazy.
WILLIAMS: Correct. There you go.
O'REILLY: But I'll tell you what -- if there was going to be a backlash against Muslims, it would happened after 9/11. It didn't happen in this country.
WILLIAMS: It didn't happen in this country.
O'REILLY: It did not happen here. So, we are smart enough to understand who the good Muslims are and who the bad Muslims are. But to diminish the whole thing as the left wants to do, very dangerous. I have got to go, guys, as always.
WILLIAMS: That would be hypocrisy.
O'REILLY: All right. Thank you very much.
On Thursday, October 21, the day after his comments on Fox, Williams was terminated by NPR CEO Schiller, whose management background includes CNN and the New York Times. Schiller cited the NPR ethics guidelines, and in an email to NPR member stations, some of whom were upset about the timing of the termination during pledge week, Schiller wrote: "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that's what's happened in this situation." "As you all well know," Schiller continued, "we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview -- not our reporters and analysts."
Before it was over, Schiller would remark to a press gathering in Atlanta that Williams should have directed his comments to his "psychiatrist or his publicist or take your pick," setting off alarm bells in the mental heath community. Schiller would later apologize to NPR staff for the way the firing was handled, and to the mental health group NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) for her mental health comment. But no apologies to Juan Williams.
Truth is, Williams has something better than an "I'm sorry." Fox News immediately signed him, as a free agent, to a $2 million over three year contract, a reported big raise for the feisty Williams, who joins the bench at Fox that includes the Tea Party Dream Team of Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and now Williams. And Fox's Roger Ailes got to welcome Williams as a full member of the Fox family while also flipping off NPR. "Williams is an honest man, whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis," said Ailes.
Today, shortly before the NPR Board would announce its hiring of Weil, Gotshal, CEO Schiller sent a memo to the NPR staff, to give them a heads-up that "an independent, objective third party [will] review both the process by which the decision was made, and the way it was implemented and communicated. NPR has retained the Weil firm to conduct that review, reporting to a committee of the Board. They have been asked to work quickly, but more importantly, to ensure a thorough process."
Follow Bill Lichtenstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Bill_LCMedia