By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The White House reached out to National Public Radio over the weekend, offering analyst Juan Williams a presidential interview to mark yesterday's 50th anniversary of school desegregation in Little Rock.
But NPR turned down the interview, and Williams's talk with Bush wound up in a very different media venue: Fox News.
Williams said yesterday he was "stunned" by NPR's decision. "It makes no sense to me. President Bush has never given an interview in which he focused on race. . . . I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me."
Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, said she "felt strongly" that "the White House shouldn't be selecting the person." She said NPR told Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, that "we're grateful for the opportunity to talk to the president but we wanted to determine who did the interview." When the White House said the offer could not be transferred to one of NPR's program hosts, Weiss took a pass.
Perino said she called Williams with the offer Saturday because of the Little Rock anniversary and the racial controversy over charges of excessive prosecution in Jena, La.
"We thought this would be a good opportunity for the president to sit down with someone and have a broader conversation about race relations," Perino said. "The president has talked with Juan before and we know him well. He's active in trying to keep good relations with us. . . . We could have done a print interview, but I felt I wanted people to hear the president's voice."
Williams called his bosses, who expressed concern that the only interview Bush has granted NPR during his tenure was also with Williams, in January.
While it is not unusual for the White House to offer a presidential sitdown to a particular anchor or correspondent, Weiss noted that ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox have all had their anchors interview Bush and that NPR has been requesting such a session for seven years. When Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign last week offered an interview to NPR's health reporter, Weiss said, the network obtained permission to have it done instead by "All Things Considered" host Melissa Block.
Asked her reaction to NPR's decision, Perino said: "I wouldn't call it disappointed. We just moved on."
Moving on, in this case, meant asking Williams, a part-time contributor at Fox News, if he would do the interview for the administration's favorite television network. Williams taped the sitdown Monday, and excerpts aired on various Fox programs. He asked the president not just about race but about the 2008 campaign and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"NPR's lack of news judgment is astonishing, and their treatment of a respected journalist like Juan Williams is appalling," said Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti.
Williams is a one-time Washington Post reporter and editorial writer who has written such books as "Eyes on the Prize," about the civil rights movement. In a Post op-ed column on Little Rock yesterday, he criticized a recent Supreme Court decision striking down two voluntary school integration plans as contributing to the isolation of poor and minority students.
Williams, who is sometimes criticized by liberal groups, dismissed the notion that he was picked as a sympathetic interviewer, saying he often challenges the administration on "Fox News Sunday."
"I had worked at NPR's direction to develop a relationship with the White House," he said. "I have an expertise on race relations. . . . I thought the listeners of NPR lost a tremendous opportunity to hear the president in a rare interview on a very important subject."