Monday, October 25, 2010


Remember Helen Thomas' retirement from Hearst Corporation back in June?

Remember Shirley Sherrod's forced resignation from USDA back in July?

Some writers are comparing these cases to the case of Juan Williams, with mixed results.

Parvez Ahmed writes:
Let us get one thing correct -- Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr and Juan Williams are neither racists nor bigots. By all accounts they are good journalists. But by expressing negative stereotypes about a racial or religious group they are guilty of breaching the ethics of fairness, crucial ingredients to succeed in journalism. Thus their forced resignation or firing from Hearst, CNN and NPR respectively is the right action. Having publicly expressed their biases they could no longer be viewed has having the credibility to be impartial arbiters of news.
In June, I wrote, "I invite anyone to explain to me why Thomas ought to have resigned for her comments." In fact, the title of my post was, "Helen Thomas lost her job for this?" Ahmed has given me the explanation I requested. I was emphasizing the fact that Thomas's speech was legitimately political and not bigoted. The comments that got Williams in trouble, on the other hand, were. So I believe that Williams' speech was worse than Thomas'. But Ahmed is right. As a journalist, Thomas ought to have been fired, and Hearst had every right to do so. I screwed up. Consistency demands that I admit my error here, and I do.

Slate's William Saletan compares Williams to Sherrod:
Three months ago, right-wingers clipped a video of Sherrod to make her look like a racist. They circulated the video on the Internet, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture fired her. 
Now it's happening again. This time, left-wingers have done the editing. They clipped a video of Juan Williams, a commentator for Fox News and NPR, to make him look like an anti-Muslim bigot. They circulated the video on the Internet, and last night, NPR fired him.
Saletan came out against the firing of Sherrod in July, and now he comes out against the firing of Williams. Saletan writes:
The damning video clip of Williams, like the damning clip of Sherrod, cuts off the speaker just as he's about to reverse course. According to the full transcript, immediately after saying, "I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts," Williams continues: "But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it's not a war against Islam." That continuation has been conveniently snipped from the excerpt.
If Williams is guilty of anything, according to Saletan, it is for expressing his fears. Saletan writes: 
But admitting such fears doesn't make you a bigot. Sometimes, to work through your fears, you have to face them honestly. You have to think through the perils of acting on those fears. And you have to explain to others why they, too, should transcend their anxieties or resentments and treat people as individuals.
That's what Shirley Sherrod did in her speech to the NAACP. It's what Juan Williams did in his interview on Fox News. 
There are significant differences between these two cases, however. 
  • The irrational fears Sherrod confessed to having were fears she had many years ago; Williams confessed to having irrational fears now. 
  • NPR was well within its rights to fire Williams; since Sherrod's bigoted actions occurred so long ago, it's not clear that USDA was justified in firing her. 
  • It is abundantly clear that Sherrod is a reformed bigot; it is not so clear in the case of Williams. Everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of bigots taking back their bigotry in the same breath in which they express it. Williams appears to be a bigot in spite of himself. It may be that we're all bigots. But we are smart enough to combat our own bigotry, and we can certainly avoid expressing it in public. Universal bigotry is no excuse for bigotry. 
In addition, it's not clear that putting Williams' comment in context helps. Even if Williams recognizes the irrationality of his bigotry, as the rest of the segment suggests, that doesn't show that he is not a bigot. Saletan admits as much in his defense of him. Saletan denies that Williams' fears are bigoted, I know, but he is simply wrong about that. 

But the fact that Williams is a bigot is not, strictly speaking, the real problem here anyway. The problem is that Williams chose to express his bigotry in a public forum. He didn't have to work through his fears in front of who knows how many viewers of The O'Reilly Factor. As a journalist, he should have done that in private. No one had a gun to his head, and there was plenty of material from the preceding Talking Points segment to talk about without confessing to this or that irrational fear. 

I have a great amount of respect for Saletan and the high quality of his work for Slate. On this one rare occasion, unfortunately, he dropped the ball. We all do at some point. 

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson