Juan Williams, What Happened?

A look at how NPR's Juan Willaims lost his way.
by Published on
Photo by Pete Wright

Juan Williams – fired by National Public Radio after saying he gets nervous when he sees folks in “Muslim garb,” and then given a $2 million contract by Fox News — once wrote an essay about what he learned from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall:

“It is our turn to do what is right; to fight the fight, keeping our eyes on the prize,” wrote Williams many years ago.

He had come up through the ranks as a Washington Post reporter, and had done solid, well-received work at that newspaper – back in the 1980s when the Post was flush with resources, was our other “national newspaper” (apart from The New York Times) and was filled with the best writing to be found in a daily American publication.

I remember talking with him when he was on a speaking engagement for national newspaper editors in Dallas – and on another occasion when he was in Houston to speak to the Texas Library Association. I told him this: I admired his long-form journalism, I liked the stories and books that touched on The Great Racial Divide that still existed in the United States.

He had, to me, eloquently helped to pull together some of the conflicting and even tangled threads of the history of the civil rights movement in his work with the book/film “Eyes on the Prize”  (that two-headed project featured a book introduction and film narration by Julian Bond; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had once asked Bond, and me, to write separate essays about the legacy of JFK’s assassination in Dallas).

Williams had also participated, with many other reporters, in a collection of stories about freedom fighters in America that was called “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder”  — with a foreword by David Halberstam and an afterword by Marian Wright Edelman. He had done his essays and book on the tribulations and triumphs of Marshall. He had also kicked some investigative ass along the way, taking a hard look at the very conflicted rein of DC Mayor Marion Barry.

But simmering in the background were some things that didn’t seem to match up: In 1991, he had been called on the carpet during his time at the Post, and accused of making offensive, inappropriate comments to women staffers. Several women were righteously indignant – and angry at The Post for not doing more to admonish him. “I have said so repeatedly in the last few weeks, and repeat here: some of my verbal conduct was wrong,” Williams wrote in a open letter to his colleagues.

There were, it also turns out, women who didn’t think that National Public Radio should have hired him in the first place – and tried to block him from getting the job as an NPR voice. Read about that here.

 

Now, the shit storm, as someone in Texas once framed it for me, has hit several different fans at the same time.

Williams has been slamming NPR; FOX has given him a broader forum to bash and gnash; the Glenn Beckians are out in full-force-fury, saying that free speech is dead; Williams’s boss at NPR, CEO Vivian Schiller, embarrassed herself (and later apologized) for publicly saying that Williams should actually have shared his thoughts with his psychiatrist.

A friend of mine, writing on another free speech issue, put it this way in a local Austin paper: “The press needs to side with what’s right.” 

And that ideal surely extends to Williams. And to NPR and Fox.

I know that Molly Ivins would tell everyone involved the same thing: “I should slap you all upside the head . . . just what the hell are all of you thinking? Why don’t y’all try to do the right thing – and write about the right things? ”

When the hell are you going to get back to thinking straight and clear – and using the media pulpit, the news venues to, oh say, advance grand human ideals? When the hell are you going to stop pissing on each other, wasting the increasingly precious news space in America? When will you stop indulging in the endless abuse of the airwaves, the public forums – so you can confess your paranoia, or blithely tell someone they need to see a psychiatrist.

When the hell is the media going to get its eyes back on the prize – as Juan Williams once elegantly, eloquently, wrote?