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Juan Williams: Word for Word

Author of 'Muzzled' speaks up

By Michael King, Fri., Oct. 21, 2011

News analyst and author Juan Williams will be in town this week (Saturday, Oct. 22, 10am, C-SPAN/Book TV Tent), speaking at the Texas Book Festival about his new book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate (Crown Publishers, 304 pp., $24). Earlier this month, we spoke to him by phone about the book, his firing last year by National Public Radio, and his belief that honest public debate in the U.S. has been effectively muzzled by "political correctness" on both ends of the political spectrum. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

Austin Chronicle: Let's start with the National Public Radio background. They treated you pretty shabbily in the firing, and it's clear, especially from the end of your book, that the argument isn't over yet since you argue to end federal funding of NPR. Why do you think NPR should be defunded?

Juan Williams: I think it's just an untenable position for a journalist. I think I tell the story in the book, but I'll just reiterate it, that – I stayed out of this for the longest time, because I didn't want anyone to view it as sour grapes, or the act of a vindictive spirit. But then you had this congressman, Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, saying, "We have to stop the Republicans from defunding NPR, because NPR is our answer to Rush Limbaugh and right-wing radio." At that point it just became glaringly apparent – wait a second; so if a journalist at NPR thinks he's doing a story that's critical of the Democrats, and he loses support from the Democrats because the Democrats will say, "You're supposed to support us" – I think that's an untenable position. You're either trying to please the Democrats or trying to prove to the Republicans that you're not biased. It seems to me that they have made themselves into a political ping-pong ball.

All they need to do is remove themselves from what, by their own description, is a one- or two-percent contribution from the federal treasury, and they can be their own entity and do whatever honest and real work they feel is appropriate for their journalism. I think that would make them and the journalists much more comfortable in their role, which is, they're supposed to tell you the honest truth. [Editor's note: NPR does not receive any direct federal funding, but is awarded competitive grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other federal agencies, which amount to 2% of its overall revenues.]

AC: I can understand that argument, but in your whole book, one of the problems you identify, whether it's at Fox or MSNBC or CNN, is that in the commercial media, the news has gotten increasingly polarized. In your case, I presume you spend a lot of time replying to Republicans that you're not biased. And the people who get on those cable shows are by definition people who want to shout to the extremes.

JW: As a denizen of the cable shows, I don't think that's me. But I understand your point, that most of them are.

AC: That's the point I'm making. Speaking here from the hinterlands – obviously, Steve Israel has his opinions – but I don't think of NPR, for example, as a left-wing or Democratic outlet. My feeling is that most of the networks, plus NPR, tend to cover the political spectrum from A to B. But what about the rest of the alphabet that doesn't really have a voice? I think your book is partly about that, which is the reason I asked the question.

JW: Sure. I think that one of the things from my perspective – there's a lot of apples and oranges in this discussion. If you're saying, if you're trying to equate Rush Limbaugh and NPR and cable television – which is what people always do with me, because they say you work for cable and for NPR, and they think ... [trails off]. Limbaugh is a talk show, and it's personality-driven, highly, highly opinionated. NPR, I think people have a hard time telling you even in general who hosts their prominent shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. So it's not personality-driven in that sense. Secondly, they rely heavily on narrative journalism. But I think implicit in the narrative telling are lots of liberal shibboleths.

The easiest one that comes to mind is that whenever you hear a story on African-Americans, the voices tend to be from a very limited portion of the political spectrum. It tends to be Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson. They're never on the right; they're not even in the middle – you certainly don't hear from black ministers or black businessmen or black professionals. It's as if we're still back in the Fifties, to some extent – "black anger, white guilt." And if you extend that, in terms of politics, they'll say, "We're not going to use phrases like 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life,'" and then they immediately proceed to have discussions, or assumptions depicted in the piece – the givens, if you will, in a geometric design of the journalism – well, "forward-looking liberal people are in support of abortion rights and anybody who isn't is hung up on religion or ...."

Obviously, I'm not – let's be clear, this is not about my thinking, because I am pro-choice. I'm just telling you, this is the kind of thinking that's implicit in these messages. It's the kind of thinking that made George Bush and his administration so antagonistic to NPR, because they felt that, without saying they don't like George W. Bush, they felt like they were being treated as, "the president's a dummy, the president's a tool of the elite, of the rich business interests in the society, the president is simply lucky to be his father's son" – rather than to give the guy an opportunity to stand on his own.

AC: To me, when they have one of those verbal debates, it seems to me that they're afraid of their own shadows – or whoever's yelling at them at the moment. It was the same way when there was this long debate over whether they should use the word "torture." That happened both at The New York Times and NPR – practices that had been considered torture for millennia suddenly were no longer being called "torture" because the United States government was practicing them. Suddenly, journalists found themselves saying, "We better not use that word."

In Muzzled, after the first chapter, you're not really so much talking about yourself – you've landed on your feet, and you can still speak out, on Fox or elsewhere – but rather about what this approach to the news or to public issues has done to public discussion. Can you talk about that thrust of your book?

JW: I can't tell you how much I appreciate that question. It's confusing to some people about the book because they think it's about my firing from NPR. The firing from NPR is just the tip of the iceberg; it's the hook for this very important discussion that is 90 percent of the book. One chapter is about the NPR thing; the other nine chapters, literally, are about how difficult it is to have an honest debate in this society today, and the roots of this political correctness, and how it's used by the both the left and the right, and how we find ourselves as Americans having even our debates and discussions governed by the politically correct extremes. Political extremes will tell you "here's the language we want you to use," or "you're offensive if you say this," or "you're not a good Republican if you don't believe this," or "you're not a good Democrat if you don't believe this" – you must sign a pledge. "You're not a good Christian," "you're not a good black guy" – I could go on.

It's just unbelievable. That's 90 percent of the book, and that's why I appreciate you asking the question. In terms of the larger argument, the larger argument is that we find ourselves, at this moment, in a situation where most Americans feel that when any important public policy issue is discussed, they need to bite their tongues; they need to restrain themselves from expressing their honest opinion for fear that they will either be ostracized, told that they are inappropriate, told that they could offend somebody, that they will be marginalized and treated as a loose cannon for expressing their honest belief, or in my case, fired – because you're not supposed to tell people what's really on your mind, what you really feel.

Imagine, in my case, it's not even what's on my mind; it's what I felt in a given situation. You're not supposed to say what you feel, and you're not supposed to say what's on your mind, what you're thinking. That this was viewed as a violation of journalistic standards for a person who is a "news analyst." In other words, I'm not supposed to have opinions.

AC: That seemed to me particularly silly – you're supposed to analyze things, and yet they don't want you commenting.

JW: Or, you're supposed to explain what is the basis for your analysis. But I think it goes beyond me, and now we're approaching the one-year anniversary of it. At first, I was just worried about myself, about being labeled a bigot, that no one would want to deal with me, that my career as a journalist was over. I realize now how shortsighted and self-centered that was. In fact, this story – it became apparent within a matter of days – this story became a national sensation not because of me; it was a national sensation because there are so many people who had similar feeling that they can't say what's on their mind. They're at risk of being called a bigot or a racist or a jerk or a crazy right-winger or a bleeding-heart, mindless liberal, if they just simply say what they're thinking, if they're trying to explore ideas, if they're open to listening to the other side. I mean, if you're open to listening to the other side now, you're called spineless and weak-kneed and a traitor; you're vacillating, you're not a reliable ally. This is an invitation to not think.

AC: And the corollary seems to be, in public policy matters – for politicians, say, in the recent Republican debates – you're judged much more harshly for what you may or may not have said than for what you've actually done as a public official. And it's hard to write about – because people are more instantly outraged by something someone has said, or allegations of what they've said – than they are about long public policy records. It's strange.

JW: It's very strange. If you stop and look at people like Rick Perry, Mitt Romney – they have a long-standing public record. But in the debates that are taking place, Romney is having to deny being the father of health care reform in Massachusetts because he realizes that the base holds a line of thinking that requires that you be an opponent of affordable health care as passed by President Obama. So you can't say, you know, "Actually, I'm a Republican who thinks that it's a good idea that we have some public health care in this country, and here's why, and here's how it worked in Massachusetts, and here's how I think it's a good idea, and I understand your concerns, and I certainly would not want to damage our economy, and if I realized it didn't work, or you show me it didn't work ...."

Instead of just being himself, he's having to deny himself. What's amazing about this is, some people will buy it. The same really, in the case of Rick Perry. Here's a guy who has a long-standing record on immigration – it's no secret – the guy has had support from the Chamber of Commerce for his in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. He had a way to say, "As a matter of economic interest, here's why the state of Texas believes this is a good idea; I understand why others may disagree, but here's why I think it's a good idea." He could also have said why he opposes sanctuary cities, et cetera. But now he's having to reinvent himself and become a hard-liner.

That's what happened to John McCain down in Arizona, in the senate race, when he was challenged by J.D. Hayworth in the senate race. John McCain, the maverick and a guy who was very sensitive to immigration issues, all of a sudden had to become the fierce, hard-line, anti-immigrant politician. And the audience re-elected him on that basis. Is that who John McCain is? As you were pointing out, he has a long-standing record in this country as a politician, and yet the record seems to count less than the rhetoric.

AC: Do you think that orthodoxy is enforced by the public or enforced by the media?

JW: It's a symbiotic relationship. In the current media landscape, people tend to go with strong personalities that they feel are basically on their side of the aisle or people that they identify with. People that in general give them the sense that they are right. So they go to a personality who's going to reaffirm their preexisting opinions and prejudices, be they on the left or the right. It's the sort of people who turn religiously to Rush Limbaugh or turn religiously to Jon Stewart or Keith Olbermann or something like that. But they exist on the left and the right, and they have their audiences.

Once it gets set in stone that the leading personalities on your side say that Rick Perry is so wrong, then you think that Rick Perry is wrong. Which came first? In many cases, I think it's the media personality telling you what to think, but in other cases, it's the media personality scanning the Web, or listening to other shows to try to pick up what other people on his or her side think, and then trying to stay inside those margins so that they can still claim their liberal or conservative credentials.

AC: Let me circle back quickly to where we started. The original remark that got you in so much trouble, when you were trying to make the case that people shouldn't act on their fears, they should act on principle [that is, while confessing to fears of people on airplanes dressed in identifiably "Muslim" clothing, yet arguing that fears do not justify violating constitutional rights] – did anyone ever ask you, what is "Muslim clothing" and why would a potential terrorist dress in a way that might single him out as unusual or as a Muslim?

JW: I'd put it a little differently. Several people have pointed out, the people who perpetrated 9/11 weren't dressed in any Muslim garb – you wouldn't have known on that basis, so what are you thinking, what are you doing? The answer for me was, this is not a matter of pure logic, it's a matter of a feeling and an emotional response. Given what's obvious to me, that there's a real connection between radical Islam and terrorism, and the fact that planes were used as instruments of terror on 9/11, that's my visceral reaction if I see someone who's identifying themselves first and foremost as a Muslim. So that's the reaction that I had.

AC: In the week after 9/11, I heard you say on NPR that we really need to consider the use of nuclear weapons. To me, I was just stunned by the remark since we didn't know who had done it or how they had possibly had done it, and I wondered if you ever had second thoughts about that remark.

JW: I'm trying to remember – you mean the use of nuclear weapons against people who had attacked us?

AC: Yes, that was the thrust of your remark, and I was stunned by it, and thought I'd take the opportunity to ask you.

JW: You know, I don't remember all the details. I do remember two things: 1) that it was in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and I think the issue was "Is the United States allowed to employ nuclear weapons in response to these attacks if they're proven to be state-based attacks on the United States." And then there was something else there. I guess it was in the immediate aftermath – what limits would you put on. I'm not sure, I'm trying to re-create the situation in my mind. But I do think that it was a matter of saying, if the United States and its national security interests would include the right to employ nuclear weapons, or not employ nuclear weapons – I was saying that I think that the United States would have the right to defend itself.

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