NPR's unfortunate decision

by Tom Roberts

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I’ve just returned from a few days on the road and have had a chance to consider the firing of National Public Radio’s Juan Williams, and am deeply saddened by the deep divisions and skewed sense of journalistic ethics that it illustrates.

I was fascinated that the memory that surfaced when I first read of the firing and the circumstances that led to it was of a moment in a newsroom about 14 years ago. Our youngest child, a son, had just turned 10 at the time and a story, graphic in detail, came to my desk describing repeated rape by a priest of a 10-year-old boy. I experienced a deep, visceral involuntary reaction and imagined, in that moment, that if someone had done such a thing to one of our children, to one of our three sons or our daughter, I’d have the capacity to kill the perpetrator.

It was a wildly incongruous thought for me. I tend, however imperfectly, toward nonviolence. I am glad there are laws that would restrain me, teaching and training in my background that I trust would grab hold of me. But I can’t deny the explosive anger that I felt in that moment.

That moment didn’t govern my life. It hasn’t made me wish that pedophiles would all be executed. Quite the contrary, it has deepened by empathy by making me realize how deeply marginalized such men can become because of an illness we barely understand.

I don’t hate priests. And my moment, now honestly spoken about in public, does not disqualify me from covering priests and the church.
The grounds for Williams’ firing, as I read and understand it, was some overwrought sensibility about his capacity to be objective about Muslims after he stated that when he sees someone at an airport gate dressed in Muslim garb, in the aftermath of 9/11, he gets nervous. He said, in later comments, that he had a moment of fear, that it was a visceral reaction. But, he explained, he doesn’t say “Don’t get on the plane” or “go through extra security,” and it doesn’t keep him from getting on the plane himself.

My wife and I were on a flight about a year and a half ago. The door was ready to close when a man rushed onto the plane. He looked agitated and all disorganized. He was dropping things while trying to ram a bag into the overhead bin. He sat down and got out a copy of the Koran, he called a friend and began speaking animatedly in what sounded to my ear like Arabic. Then he opened the Koran and began a low mumble, praying I supposed, while lightly rocking back and forth.

I was frightened. For a moment, my mind leaped to the images of 9/11, it raced ahead fashioning scenario after scenario, raising questions about whether I should jump up and say. … say what? It was a moment. It did not take over my life. It did not distort my feelings toward Muslims in general and the few Muslim friends I have. I would still pray with them again, given the opportunity, as I have in the past. I would hug them and commiserate with them. I hope there is a splendid “Ground Zero” mosque and that we continue to learn more about Islam.

I learned from that moment how gripping and irrational fear can be.

The deepest question raised by the Juan Williams matter is not whether he’s a bigot of some sort unfit to report or comment on the world. I may not share some of his views, nor do I consider myself an expert on his journalism, but from what I have observed, given the insane rantings that crowd the airwaves and internet offerings, he’s a rather measured, thoughtful and well-informed individual.

What this is more about is some crazy idea of political correctness and journalistic fantasies parading as ethics, some absurd notion of what “objectivity,” an extremely limited term at best when applied to journalistic ethics, is all about. The question should be: can Williams, even with his fundamentally human and entirely understandable reaction honestly conveyed, report and comment fairly on Muslims and Islam? If not, where’s the evidence? If there’s no evidence of that, then NPR is simply asking its staff to remove itself from the human experience and operate as automatons. There’s nothing ethical or journalistic about such expectations.

It is too bad that NPR (and I remain an admirer of its reporting and its content), which retains an all-too-rare journalistic sobriety amid a sea of screamers, should have given in to such silliness.

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