Freedom of speech unites US media

By Cao Changqing 曹長青

“When I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Those words got veteran news commentator Juan Williams fired by the US’ National Public Radio (NPR). The story was last weekend’s media talking point in the US. NPR later issued a statement saying that Williams’ comments “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices.”

Left and right were united in their condemnation of NPR’s decision to fire Williams, saying that it was an attack on free speech. The decision particularly angered taxpayers and sponsors, as NPR is funded by government subsidies and private donations.

Williams is known for his center-left views and had been working at the distinctly left--leaning NPR for a decade, where he was the station’s only black male commentator. NPR management was unhappy with his frequent appearances on right-wing Fox News TV programs. One could say his dismissal had been a long time coming.

Fox News’ primetime political commentary show The O’Reilly Factor often invites figures from either side of the political spectrum to discuss issues. Although on the political left, Williams is considered a moderate liberal, and so is acceptable to Fox News’ predominantly right-wing audience. Fox News was predictably outraged, calling NPR’s decision narrow-minded and vengeful and saying that it had taken Williams’ words out of context.

Williams was originally a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and is widely acknowledged as an authority on citizens’ rights, a subject on which he has written several books. He had been discussing people’s reactions to Muslims, saying one shouldn’t harbor prejudice against all Muslims just because Muslims were implicated for 9/11, just like one shouldn’t pass judgment on all Christians just because the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and Oklahoma City bombers were both Christian. It was only right at the end, when they were talking about personal reactions that he made the contentious remarks about feeling nervous getting on a plane on which Muslims were also flying, saying it was how many Americans felt following the Sept. 11 attacks. Williams has said he was punished for speaking the truth. In a show of support, Fox immediately offered him a three-year, US$2 million contract. A far better deal, reportedly, than he was getting at NPR.

The support didn’t come just from the right-wing Fox News, either. More left-leaning cable TV programs like CNN and MSNBC, as well as other TV channels and radio stations, practically all showed a united front in condemning NPR’s handling of the matter, accusing them of going against the spirit of freedom of speech written into the US Constitution. As Williams himself said, if he gets fired for speaking his mind, what commentator is now going to want to say what they really think? It is “political correctness” gone mad. Both sides have called upon the government to pull funding for NPR. One must bear in mind that government-funded media have to keep their audiences happy. They rely on public funding sources, such as taxpayers’ money. Many members of the US Congress have already proposed that federal funding for NPR be reduced, or even stopped altogether.

Public outrage has been even stronger. According to a report in the New York Times, NPR call center staff have been inundated with complaints. The station’s Web site has received close to 7,000 comments and an unprecedented 8,000 or more e-mails, the majority of which have been complaints. Many listeners have said they will no longer tune in to the station and don’t want their money funding it.

Given the public indignation, NPR head Vivian Schiller said during an internal editorial meeting that she regretted her decision.

This incident once again shows how Americans understand the importance of freedom of speech and how sensitive an issue it remains. People working in the media in the US will cast aside their ideological differences and unite against any attack on freedom of speech in the press and join in its defense.

Cao Changqing is a freelance writer based in the US.

The Taipei Times Oct 28, 2010 Page 8

Copyright © 1999-2010 The Taipei Times. All rights reserved.

2010-10-28 (轉載請指明出處)

Follow caochangqing on Twitter

© all rights reserved.