In his new book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, Juan Williams talks about the intolerance he encountered even before being fired by National Public Radio. He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book and life after NPR.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “One NPR news executive told me directly that having on staff a black man with social conservative views who was personal friends with conservatives infuriated NPR’s old guard,” you write in Muzzled. “They were unhappy with Enough, in which I had praised Bill Cosby for his critique of black leaders. It was clear they wanted me out the door, the same executive said, because I did not fit their view of how a black person thinks — my independence of thought, my willingness to listen to a wide range of views, and my strong journalistic credentials be damned.” What is that about? Does it expose some deep-seated ideological flaw? Is it groupthink? Racism? How do you make sense of it?
JUAN WILLIAMS: They see any black conservative as a weirdo. And that is the polite way to say it. The impolite version is to call me a sell-out and an Uncle Tom. In the middle of my controversial firing, one journalist said I deserved to be fired and humiliated because I appear on Fox and debate conservatives — “sleep with dogs, get fleas.” What I can reliably report about the mindset of NPR Washington managers is that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are the real black leaders and civil-rights leaders. Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice, black ministers, and social conservatives on the other hand, to their mind are properly portrayed as aberrant and not really black. They offer a very limited range of political voices from the black community on the theory that anyone who is not a Jackson–Sharpton liberal is out of line, does not represent how black people really think. This is the all-black-people-think-alike school of journalism. I find it offensive and said so throughout my time there.
LOPEZ: “I am a black guy who makes fun of Muslims for the entertainment of white racists. . . . My animus for Muslims may be connected to my desire for publicity and the fact that I am mentally unstable.” And that was from former colleagues at NPR! What did you learn about human nature during the course of your firing controversy?
WILLIAMS: The big lesson for me was the intolerance of so-called liberals. I say intolerance because I grew up as a black Democrat in Brooklyn, N.Y., and always thought it was the Archie Bunker Republicans who practiced intolerance. My experience at NPR revealed to me how rigid liberals can be when their orthodoxy is challenged. I was the devil for simply raising questions, offering a different viewpoint, not shutting my mouth about the excesses of liberalism — a bad guy, a traitor to the cause.
LOPEZ: Have you come to some kind of peace about becoming Exhibit A in the right-wing case against NPR?
WILLIAMS: Facts are facts. I did not fire myself. I did nothing to warrant being fired. This was a painful, personal example of political correctness run wild. But it is not an isolated case. My job is to be an honest journalist. People who watch me, who read my writing, have to know that I work hard to be informative, insightful, and most of all credible. There is little value, from my point of view, in being a mouthpiece for any political cause. I want to hear people tell me what they know to be true. So, I have no trouble when the right wing cites my case in arguing that NPR lacks balance, can be intolerant, and does not protect a reporter’s right to speak his mind. Facts are facts.
LOPEZ: Roger Ailes comes off as a real mensch — as they say — in your book. What kind of impact has he had on journalism in America, in your estimation?
WILLIAMS: Roger has shaped cable-television news since Fox News Channel started in 1996 and quickly rose to the top of the ratings. In bringing strong, conservative personalities to primetime and hiring first-rate journalists of all political stripes to cover the daily news, he has revived American journalism. Even the visual look of the television screen, the intensity of watching authentic people in conversation and debate has been a tonic for journalism.