Juan Williams: The Fight for Honest Debate

FTC Statement: Reviewers are frequently provided by the publisher/production company with a copy of the material being reviewed.The opinions published are solely those of the respective reviewers and may not reflect the opinions of CriticalBlast.com or its management.

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. (This is a legal requirement, as apparently some sites advertise for Amazon for free. Yes, that's sarcasm.)

Juan Williams

"Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. I mean, look, Bill, you know I'm not a bigot, you know the kinds of books I've written about the Civil Rights Movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

If you have any interest in political news and hadn't heard of Juan Williams before October 19th, 2010, you certainly learned about him after October 20th. With the above statement, made on FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, the NPR analyst found himself on the outs with the radio network he had called home, resulting in his quick dismissal.

Williams now recounts his experiences in the introduction to his new book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, where he takes on the culture of political correctness that has insinuated itself into the whole spectrum of political ideologies. I was able to speak with Williams about his experiences at NPR, as well as his opinion on current events of the day, from Hank Williams, Jr.'s comments on Fox and Friends to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I was going to open with a different question, until Hank Williams, Jr. blessed me with his controversial opinions on Fox and Friends, resulting in ESPN removing his Monday Night Football promo for a week.

They're just pulling it for a week?

That's the last I heard, but I'm sure they're still thinking over how to handle it. [Editor's Note: As of this writing, ESPN has permanently severed ties with Hank Williams, Jr.]

Yeah, because I thought it was pretty offensive. That kind of rhetoric was pretty extreme, with the Hitler comments. I mean, it's just crazy.

Do you think the ESPN decision was deserved, or do you see any kind of parallel to the treatment you received from NPR over your comments last year?

No, I think there's an important distinction to be made -- and somehow it's often lost on people -- between something that's politically correct and something that is deeply offensive -- something that is said in order to provoke; something that a provocateur does in terms to draw attention to himself or herself. It's really not about overstepping some line of political orthodoxy, it's about just being intentionally hurtful.

And that's what I think Hank Williams did. I think Hank Williams thinks he's being an entertainer and that he's being so cute by drawing an analogy between our president and Hitler. It's an outrageous type of thing. And then I think he would run and hide behind the claim that it's just political correctness to not want him to say that Obama's the modern incarnation of Hitler. But I think it's deeply offensive, and I think again it's just about Hank Williams thinking he's cute or being a provocateur. But there's no way you would say this is a substantive argument that it's difficult to engage in because people don't want to hear the politically incorrect truth.

There's the old adage that says, "A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged." After your treatment from NPR, do you find yourself agreeing more with any conservative ideals? And by that I don't mean to say you've changed your mind on anything, but more in the sense of when Reagan commented "I never left the Democrat party, the Democrat party left me."

I don't know about agreeing. I think I'm the same person. But the key here is that... there's a desire to somehow put everybody in a box: Are you a conservative or are you a liberal? And then here I come, and I get beat up by people who are seen as icons of liberalism -- NPR -- and everybody says, "Well, so now do you disagree with the people who fitted so neatly into the liberal box?" And the answer is, I do disagree with them on a lot things. But I disagreed with them before, and I disagreed with them afterwards. I didn't change my views on anything.

On so many issues, I think there's a liberal orthodoxy that is just punishing, and I think that's why I got fired: for being seen outside of the liberal box. That liberal orthodoxy remains in place at NPR.

In your new book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, you state how you had ruffled feathers at NPR before the statements on The O'Reilly Factor. Was it really that particular incident, or was that the most convenient feasible excuse to cover some other root cause? And if so, what might that root cause really have been?

Well, this gets back to your earlier question. It's almost a year later now, and I think it was a pretext, really. The comments that I made, that they cited as the reason for my dismissal, I think that was a pretext for the fact that they simply didn't want someone who was a prominent personality at NPR to also be a personality at FOX. They thought that there should be a bright yellow line down the middle of the road that said "Are you with a conservative media outlet, or are you with a liberal media outlet?"

This comes from the same people who would deny that they are a liberal media outlet. Throughout my time there at NPR, there had been occasional comments about, "Hey, how come this NPR guy is also a FOX guy?" and "Is he lending credibility to FOX and all those kinds of harebrained ideas?" And every generation of management that came along said, "No, actually he's doing what a journalist should do. He's not doing anything that's violating any standards." And even "He's helping to spread the word about NPR to an audience that might not know NPR, but would see that there are good journalists working at NPR and be drawn to listen to NPR programming."

So that was the decision until the last wave of management came, and I had one woman who was just hell-bent on putting everybody in a box and wanted to stop me from identifying myself as an NPR person when I appeared on prime-time FOX shows. She wanted to approve every op-ed column I wrote. She wanted to approve every book I wrote. She wanted to approve every speech I gave. At that point, the message was pretty clear. She just didn't like the idea that I wasn't under her thumb, and that, secondly, why is someone who's an NPR personality also, in her mind, crossing the line to be a personality on FOX.

From your description, I get that there's this sense -- and I'm sure it exists on both sides -- that some people think "We own this person. Therefore he can't play with the other team."

Yeah. It's funny, because, to me, especially given the stands I take on FOX, I'm most often challenging -- especially in prime-time -- I'm challenging the conservative arguments. So it's just kind of baffling to me that they don't see the value of real debate and having somebody who's in the mix in a very public place -- FOX is the number one cable channel in the United States -- holding up the highest tenets of public journalism, which is that you're out there trying to set the facts straight, and you're making your case. No matter if the setting leans left or leans right, you're out there making the best journalistic case and delivering a strong journalistic product to the audience. I think that's what counts.

Your book focuses on debates -- and the "Assault on Honest Debate."

By the way, I'm glad you said that, because I fear that people think it's just about NPR and getting fired from NPR. And that's not what the book is about. That's the first chapter, but nine-tenths of the book is about the assault on honest debate.

A debate, traditionally, has a winner and a loser. But some of the debates between liberals and conservatives have been going on to the point of fatiguing the American listeners. Does either side actually have a winning argument -- or is it more important to them that there be no winner.

As you point out, this is an ongoing argument, an ongoing debate. It never seems to get settled. I think "settled" comes in terms of elections. So you would say that in 2008 liberals were activated and energized because they felt so powerfully persuaded that what had been going on with the Bush administration and with the economy required a fix -- required a turn away from the Bush policies. And you'll note that they were able then to persuade the middle -- the independent or swing voters -- to join them, and that's what led to not only President Obama's election, but to those overwhelming numbers of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. So we saw that tilt to the argument in terms of who was winning and losing begin in '06 when Democrats claimed the House and Senate, but it really went off the scales in favor of the Democrats in '08.

Then you see a backlash in '10 Republicans -- especially the Tea Party folks -- now are making the argument that this is big government and high taxes and intrusive government, largely in relation to the health care legislation. And that then drives, and you see the argument in terms of who's winning and who's losing the argument swing back to the right side of the political spectrum. So at any one moment I think it's elections that determine who's winning and who's losing, but the argument is self-perpetuating.

And the winning side shifts from time to time.

Yes, there's no settled winner or loser. It's a moment in time of who's winning and who's losing.

Regarding stories being ignored due to internal politics in media outlets, what do you believe should have been the biggest story of the past few years, but wasn't, due to internal editorial slant?

I think it's very hard to have conversations about race in American society, so if you stop and look at something like the immigration issue -- we get a lot of coverage of it in terms of illegal immigration, but we never, ever have a discussion about the fact that it's the surge in legal immigration, overwhelmingly, that has upset a number of people, especially older, white Americans who will tell you this is not the country they grew up in and who find it extremely disconcerting that there are so many people born in other countries who are now here and creating their own community -- that this is part of a global economic structure. I don't think we talk about that, or write on it, or report on it very well at all. I think it's now becoming more prominent in terms of our politics, but it's the reason that we can't get anything done on immigration.

Similarly, I think that we don't have discussions about family breakdown in the country: high rates of children born out of wedlock... everybody says it's too sensitive. But the family is the core unit in any society, and to see the rate at which the two-parent family structure has disintegrated in American life is truly stunning. And yet I don't think it gets much attention in the media.

YOu touch on racism being a touchy subject in a couple of places in your book. In one instance you state, "Is it possible to talk about Muslims and terrorism without being called a bigot?" It's an age old problem, of course, whether it's a racial issue or a cultural issue, but it's always within a shifting context or newer context.

Right. It is. It shifted again just last week when Al Awlaki was killed, because then suddenly it was a conversation about "Can the U.S. Government just decide to kill an American citizen if that American citizen is believed to be engaged in terrorist activity?" I think most American's sided with President Obama's decision, but the conversation, sparked by people like Libertarian Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich or the ACLU -- it's an odd pairing, but they're all on the same point: "Can the President just declare anybody a terrorist and kill him?" And this goes back to torture and all the rest. That argument about how we deal with terrorism -- we have a very hard time calling it what it is, saying that it is terrorism, it's not a "man-made disaster." Saying that "Yes, we kill people, and we will target people for assassination," and then saying "Does that fit in terms of our American civil liberties and Constitutional protections?" The people will agree he was a bad guy and we killed him, but they don't want to have the larger conversation about civil liberties and Constitutional protections, and I think that's absolutely essential as we move forward.

There's a lot of talk in Muzzled about political correctness, and people reacting to it on both the right and the left. Do you believe that most PC reactions are genuine, or are they exaggerated offenses from one side to force the other to play by their own rules, so to speak?

That's exactly it! When we talk about PC in American society today, what we're really saying is, "You have to adhere to my preconceived notion about how to have this conversation." So if you want to have a conversation about abortion, you have to talk about being pro-life if I am someone who opposes abortion. You have to talk about being pro-choice if I am someone who opposes limits or restrictions or bans on abortion. And this extends across the board. With what we were just talking about in terms of terrorism -- "man-made disasters," where the Obama adminstration didn't want to talk about terrorism, per se, as terrorism.

Think about the -- this is such a crazy thing -- the Tony Kushner example up in New York where Tony Kushner was up for an honorary degree from a college, and then one of the board members heard that Kushner had some criticism of Israeli policies and then had him removed from the list of honorary degree recipients. It was only when this became public and people said Tony Kushner's Jewish and has been a long-time supporter of Israel, it's just that he has some questions about Israeli policy, that there was a backlash, and then Tony Kushner was restored. But the idea was, "You're not allowed to criticize Israel, and you're going to be punished." Again, that's trying to impose political correctness -- you can only talk about Israel in this way or we will banish you, marginalize you, and we will condemn you and deny you honorary degrees and much more.

You mention how a debate is a search for compromise. It seems like we're in an era where 'compromise' is a dirty word, because every every piece is so important, every plank is so sacrosanct, that how could anyone even consider giving in on anything. Is compromise even possible today -- do you see any middle ground that people could be led to?

Of course! I think compromise is like a bright light that's obvious to everybody. If you look at the poll numbers on something like budget deals, debt ceiling negotiations, debt reduction -- the American people are very clear in overwhelming numbers that "Here's the compromise: Yes we want some spending cuts and we want some tax hikes -- and we inherently want tax hikes on people who make more than $250,000," -- just as the President has proposed. I guess he's reading the polls, too, because that's the clear, obvious, bright shining compromise that's out there for everybody.

So compromise is possible. It's that we have political actors today who purposely act in defiance of compromise. They've made compromise a dirty word. They've turned anybody who is engaged in seeking the obvious compromise into a weak-kneed person who lacks spine, lacks conviction and principle, and a sellout. It's the most absurd thing, given that compromise is the heart of politics. It's the art of politics. But all of a sudden, they see political advantage in playing to the political extremes -- far left and far right -- in denying the need for the obvious compromise that the overwhelming majority of Americans -- not just the majority, but the overwhelming majority -- is crying for.

Just judging from comments I see on the Internet in political discussions, sometimes I don't think the politicians are worried so much about their own supporters saying "My guy caved" as much as they are about supporters on the other side of the argument saying, "Ha ha! Your guy caved!"

Exactly right. And it's tit for tat, and guess what? We're talking about allowing our political decisions and our debates to all be limited and proscribed by people on the far left or far right, who are the ones who are going to be pointing fingers at each other and saying "Ha ha! Your guy caved!" Or "Ha ha! We got the better of you on this!" Or "Oh my God! Our guy caved and we can't have that!" -- They are now defining not only debate in our country, but our inability to find political compromise that would lead to real solutions to the very real problems we face as a country.

If you want to talk about "lively debates," the Founding Fathers certainly led the way on this one...

Oh my goodness!

Sometimes the debates spilled outside the halls and taken out back! But I was wondering, is there anybody out there that you'd like to debate, someone that you just want to sit across from and say, "Let's have this conversation" about something?

Well, I think Grover Norquist, who has that pledge on "No Taxes." That seems to me to be kind of a hardline, no compromise vision that does not help the American people in terms of dealing with budgets, in terms of the reality of the need to raise debt ceilings without the kind of brinksmanship that leads investors to lose confidence in the American economy and leads the rating agencies to downgrade our ratings. I like Grover as a person, but I just don't understand why you would force us into that position.

Also, for the politicians who sign it... to me it's contrary to the idea that they're being elected as public officials who have to exercise some judgment and trust for the American people. They are totally conceding, or selling off, their trust to some pledge, so that they can't respond to any emergency or crisis or particular circumstance during their term in office. They have said, "No, I can't do anything but what I've pledged," even before they get in office. To me this is just nonsensical.

What's your opinion on the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Yeah, I just did a column for The Hill on it! I think this is part of the Democrat's strategy for trying to hold as many seats as possible in the Senate and winning back the White House. I think that this amounts, potentially, to the new Tea Party of the Left. If you look at the numbers, it's overwhelming. Americans think that there is an increasing class divide in this society, that it's getting harder and harder to make it in AmericaThey are angry at Wall Street, they are angry at the banks, at the big corporations that aren't spending money to hire people despite their high levels of profits. They're mad at the companies and inviduals who don't pay taxes or pay lower tax rates than they pay.

So I think that, for the Democrats, this is a winning political strategy, and it's most obvious form is the Occupy Wall Street movement. So I think as we see the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from New York to places like Pittsburgh and San Francisco, this is energizing the Democratic base. I think it's going to pay big dividends for Democrats come 2012.

So is it a Democrat strategy or a grassroots movement?

If it didn't have some organic origins, it wouldn't work. It's just like Tea Party stuff really did resonate with people -- but a lot of big corporations, a lot of direct mail groups are the ones who created the Tea Party movement, but it definitely resonates in terms of people who are concerned about Health Care Reform, who are concerned about higher taxes, about seeing their Medicare and Medicaid benefits diminish. It resonated with those people.

I think this thing is even more organic than the Tea Party.