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NPR's hasty decision to fire pundit Juan Williams

Friday, October 22, 2010; A26

IN A DEMOCRACY, the media must foster a free and robust political debate, even if such debate may, at times, offend some people. At the same time, they must uphold standards of civility, including an appropriate respect for the legitimate sensitivities of all members of the public. The eternal question is how to strike the right balance.

No one has a perfect record. And it's even more difficult now, as Americans grope for the right words to address two realities: the growth of an overwhelmingly law-abiding Muslim population in the United States and the threat from Islamist terrorists. Recently The Post spiked a satirical comic strip captioned "Where's Muhammad?" for fear of offending Muslims, who consider depictions of the prophet blasphemous, even though the strip did not actually depict Muhammad. Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander said the decision could be seen as "timid," noting that the artist intended to protest death threats that some of his cartooning colleagues have faced from Muslim extremists.

Now comes NPR's decision to fire pundit Juan Williams, a former colleague of ours at The Post, for his remarks about Muslims and terrorism on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" Monday night. NPR, a radio network supported by federal grants and private contributions, said in a statement that those comments "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR." What was Mr. Williams's sin? He admitted, with apparent chagrin, that he has engaged in a kind of racial profiling in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks: "When I get on the plane, I 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." Mr. Williams then alluded to a declaration of war against America by convicted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and added: "I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts."

In making this confession, Mr. Williams undoubtedly spoke for many Americans who are wrestling with similar feelings. His words could be offensive to some, if construed as an endorsement of negative stereotyping. But the full broadcast makes clear that Mr. Williams intended the opposite. To be sure, he struggled to get his point across, because host Bill O'Reilly kept interrupting him. But Mr. Williams did manage to observe that "we don't want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."

In short, Mr. Williams was attempting to do exactly what a responsible commentator should do: speak honestly without being inflammatory. His reward was to lose his job, just as Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod lost hers over purportedly racist remarks that turned out to be anything but. NPR management appears to have learned nothing from that rush to judgment. "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality," Mr. Williams told Mr. O'Reilly. NPR, alas, has proved his point.

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