Of all the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, America arguably has the most uneasy coexistence with the First Amendment. In an age characterized by the ubiquity of information and places to share it, the boundaries of unrestricted free speech are subject to constant probing. Journalists and commentators are fond of singing paeans to freedom of expression, yet often recoil from straightforward dialogue.
Needless to say, our national confusion over free speech is on full display in the increasingly acrimonious and convoluted case of National Public Radio’s (NPR) firing of Juan Williams, its longtime news analyst. His unfair defenestration united people from across the political spectrum in full-throated denunciation of NPR’s action. Mr. Williams’ firing also put on full display the national media’s infuriating penchant for political correctness and double-standards.
In an appearance on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor early this week, Mr. Williams articulated the nervousness experienced by millions of Americans in an age of global terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism. He described his discomfort at seeing “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.”
WATCH ‘MORNING JOE’ COVERAGE OF THE JUAN WILLIAMS/NPR SCANDAL:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”39794991″ id=”msnbc705df4″]
NPR immediately swung its axe, with CEO Vivian Schiller forcefully defending the broadcaster’s actions. She accused Mr. Williams of violated NPR’s code of ethics, which says journalists should not participate in media “that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.” Yet fulfilling the adage that living well is the best revenge, Mr. Williams achieved the ultimate soft-landing as Fox News offered him three-year contract with a $2 million paycheck.
In fact, the unacknowledged elephant in the room has been Mr. Williams’ longtime role as a contributor to the right-leaning network, which occupies a special place in popular culture as a vehicle for liberal disdain. For its part, NPR set a new standard for hypocrisy when it accepted a $1.8 million grant from left-wing billionaire activist George Soros, even as the broadcaster attacked Mr. Williams’ objectivity.
Some might be tempted to dismiss NPR’s actions as overblown navel-gazing by the often self-obsessed media elites. However, that would be a mistake. Mr. Williams was describing his personal feelings, and qualified his remarks by stating clearly that all Muslims should not be blamed for the actions of the extremists in their midst.
By even the most objective standards, the broadcaster clearly overreacted in firing Mr. Williams, thus violating his constitutionally-protected right to free speech. The undermining of the already weakened pillars of free speech upon which our society is founded is all the more troubling when the blow is delivered by the hands of a publicly-funded news organization. Given that the broadcaster appears less interested in upholding time-honored principles of free speech, critics are correct to call for withdrawing taxpayer dollars.
While much of Mr. Williams’ public commentary skews left — he often defends President Obama’s policy initiatives and takes obligatory shots at the Tea Party movement — he has received wide praise from many conservatives for his intellectual honesty and gravitas.
Weaved into the narrative of Mr. Williams’ firing is the double-helix of race and politics. In lambasting NPR, media critic Howard Kurtz hit the nail on the head when he called the move “political correctness run amok,” adding that “Williams has always occupied an uneasy ground as an African-American who sometimes criticizes blacks, and a liberal who isn’t far left enough for some liberals.”
But above all, NPR’s move demonstrates how paralyzed the mainstream media is by its own vaunted standards of political correctness, particularly when broaching the charged topics of race, ethnicity and religious extremism.
Earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparked a furious controversy by declaring that attempts to build a multicultural society in her country have “utterly failed”. A similar dynamic is on display with the case of Juan Williams.
Multiculturalists — many of whom are media figures — are wont to call for national “conversations” about race and ethnicity. But the inconvenient truth is that these same individuals frequently shout down remarks they consider troubling or offensive. It has a chilling effect on straightforward discussions, and effectively macerates free speech.
And evidence suggests that Americans themselves are weary of de facto censorship when it comes to politically inflected debates. A recent poll found that 51 percent of respondents think the government is “too sensitive” to the concerns of racial, ethnic and social minorities.
Open debate is the fulcrum of a vibrant democracy and the hallmark of a free press. NPR might do well to remember that its primary role is as a practitioner of free speech, and not a self-appointed defender of political correctness.