THE BLOG

Juan Williams Should Have Been Given a Choice -- NPR or Fox

10/25/2010 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Juan Williams and the far right decry "censorship" and attempt to elevate his firing a campaign issue, the public should remember several key contexts:

*First, it did seem abrupt and unfair that he was canned within a day after a decade of service, although presumably this was not the first time something like this had happened. NPR would have been far better off to acknowledge the real problem - that it was untenable for Williams to be a measured analyst on NPR by day but play along with the Fox "hate Obama" narrative at night.

So with 20/20 hindsight, it would have been preferable to give Williams notice and then give him a choice - NPR or Fox. Can we guess which venue he would have chosen?

*Second, is this "the end of the era of political correctness," as my colleague Mary Matalin remarked? Not as long as Fox is around. Talk about political correctness! If PC means not being able to describe reality because of fear or peer pressure, journalism schools could do well to study a cable network that is basically wall to wall anti-Obama, anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-climate change, anti-Stimulus on and on. Can any regular host go on Fox and say that the CBO has found that the Stimulus created/saved over three million jobs, or observe that while 24 million jobs were created in Clinton's eight years only three million were in Bush's?

*Third, the real issue is not political correctness but market models. NPR is one of the most important news firms in the country because it has a not-for-profit model of calm analysis that appeals to millions. E. J. Dionne and David Brooks. But no Limbaugh or Schultz.

Fox News Channel, too, has a very successful economic model, but it's obviously a very very different one. One human being can't really do both. Williams told the Washington Post that "I'm the same person in both venues. I don't say one thing to one outlet and another to the next." But that simply wasn't true. When I've heard him sitting in on The Factor, he was like a junior varsity version of Bill or Sean. It's easy to understand why NPR thought that his appearances on a channel that's an extension of the RNC had blown his cover and credibility.

Fox has a right - and displays business acumen - to run a network that's relentlessly one-sided and partisan. And having an occasional Democrat on, who's outshouted by everyone else, is not evidence to the contrary. So just as Roger Ailes would laugh if someone suggested that he hire Rachel Maddow because she's a brilliant talent, Fox can't object when NPR hires people based on its own model.

*William's wrote in the New York Post after his firing that the events were "a chilling assault on free speech." This is a Christine O'Donnell-level misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from enacting any law limiting speech. So everyone has a right to free speech but everyone does not have a right to an on-air job at NPR. That's up to them and them alone.

*Last, it's neither surprising nor plausible that some conservative pols are trying to make this molehill into a mountain. The three most prominently attempting this maneuver are Palin, Gingrich and Huckabee - what a coincidence, all are on the Fox payroll.

There's nothing new when conservative partisans try to play up a perceived liberal stumble into a Watergate for political advantage. Fox succeeded with Van Jones and ACORN (even though attacks were later shown to be largely smears without substance) but they flopped with Shirley Sherrod and Journolist. Nor is it likely that a Fox viewer already hot to vote against Socialism and Pelosi will now be convinced to show up at the polls because of Juan Williams.

How can adherents of capitalism fail to understand that NPR management has as much a contractual right to decide how to produce its shows as Fox does? That NPR receives a fraction of its budget from taxpayers' funds in the interest of diverse views doesn't change that equation. No one believes that tax subsidies means that government therefore has a right to hire and fire commentators. Talk about Socialism!