But in the world of media punditry, the truth is this: Live by the sword, rake in the profits.
In 2003, Bill O’Reilly threw a hissy fit and stormed off the National Public Radio show FFFFFFresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross. In an astounding case of the pot calling the kettle black, O’Reilly got incensed because Gross was peppering him with questions that he considered to be objectionable and hostile. In a priceless bit of hypocrisy, he accused Gross of being “in attack mode.” I mean really, this is like Lex Luthor bitching at Superman for being an egomaniac: yeah, sure, I guess, but how can you, of all people, possibly say this with a straight face? But of course O’Reilly found Gross to be, in his words, chock “full of typical NPR liberal bias.” Just like O’Reilly’s filled to the gills with typical Fox News conservative bias. Duh.
So what do we end up with? A staged walkout. Now I don’t think for a second that the two of them agreed to this ahead of time, and I could easily believe they really do detest each other. But there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that he didn’t plan to walkout (conveniently, after he’d spent almost the entire show sparring with Gross), and that she wasn’t absolutely elated that he did. It generated lots of publicity for both of them. Hell, lest we forget, FFFFFFresh Air is to some extent a plug show, and plugging his latest book is why O’Reilly was there to begin with. Free publicity for everyone! Yay!
Fast forward to last week. O’Reilly’s back. Once again he’s got a new book to plug. Once again, he’s going to walk into the Lion’s Den of Liberal Women Media Hosts. This time it was on The View. Starting to sound familiar? Oh, but wait, there are some minor differences that lead to a slight variation on the theme. Instead of lowering himself to participate in a diminished medium (FM radio) and going one-on-one against a woman who’s hosting a show on one of the Right’s favorite punching bags (NPR), he’s facing off against five women on one of the most highly rated daytime TV shows around, hosted by an ensemble that features America’s sweethearts. It’s Barbara Walters, people! You’ve gotta play nice. And in Bill O’Reilly’s world, that means instead of being nasty and hostile, he’s simply condescending and patronizing. And this time (ready for the big twist?) instead of the avowedly conservative guest storming off in a huff, it’s now avowedly liberal co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar who pull the disappearing act.
It took seven years, but it all came full circle, and no one’s coming out of it looking very good; there are black eyes a-plenty to go around on this one.
Just like you’ll never convince me that O’Reilly’s walkout in 2003 wasn’t planned, there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that Goldberg and Behar didn’t plan theirs. Even though they’ll never admit it, it came across as the height of contrivance. And the results are the same: all involved get a fresh blast of publicity to juice their ratings and book sales, and they increase their credibility with their Liberal and Conservative followers respectively. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with a perversion of that old aphorism. No live by the sword, die by the sword here. Media celebrities like O’Reilly, Goldberg and Behar (and Gross to a much, much lesser extent) promote their agendas, contribute to the cacophony of partisan rancor, participate in ludicrous behavior, and get rewarded for it. Sigh.
But then the question remains: who’s actually getting the sword?
That brings us to Juan Williams. Earlier today, the longtime (and just about only) conservative news analyst of National Public Radio was fired for comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show Wednesday night. It took seven years, but it all came full circle, and no one’s coming out of it looking very good; there are black eyes a-plenty to go around on this one.
O’Reilly had guests on his show last night to discuss, you guessed it, the grade school theatrics that occurred during his recent visit to The View. One of those people was author, journalist and NPR analyst Juan Williams. Amid the otherwise dull and predictable discussion, Williams launched an assault on the of strawman of “political correctness.” It’s a phrase, like “community,” that is overused and misused, people using it to mean whatever they want it to mean, to the point that the phrase itself has become virtually meaningless. And in that context, Williams said the following:
“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the Civil Rights movement in this country. But 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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
Oh God, where to begin? First off, how could O’Reilly let such a silly statement slide given the number of times he’s insinuated or outright accused Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton of being bigots despite their involvement in Civil Rights? Again with the hypocrisy. But beyond that, just because you’re sympathetic to one form of bigotry doesn’t mean you’re immune from indulging in other forms of bigotry. You’re telling me Williams can’t be any kind of a bigot because he has a deep appreciation of the racism black people endured in the Jim Crow South? That’s just ridiculous. For starters, I grew up with Jewish family, friends and acquaintances, most of whom were very sensitive to anti-Semitism, but some of whom were also very bigoted against blacks and Puerto Ricans. I’m sorry. No one gets a free pass. And how could they? It makes no sense. Bigotry is usually driven by fear, the kind of fear that stems from ignorance, and no one’s immune from ignorance. No one’s perfect. We’re all vulnerable.
So what about the statement on its own merits? What about Williams’ self-professed fear of Muslims? This is where it gets trickier. Given that most Americans have had little or no substantive interaction with any of the world’s one billion Muslims, and given that September 11th and the subsequent invasion of two secular, but overwhelmingly Muslim countries have greatly shaped most Americans’ perceptions of Muslims, and not in a positive way, it should not come as a surprise that many Americans are scared of Muslims. That’s not excusing those fears, it’s explaining them, and it shouldn’t be news to anyone.
I usually associate such distinctions with grounds for not offering workers health care, not for covering your ass.
It’s certainly disappointing that someone as worldly as Juan Williams is afraid of random Muslims sitting near him on a plane (you think he flies first class? I wonder). But hey, people are complex, and fears can be very hard to shake. I’m not condoning his statement. It was a bigoted thing to say. But it’s also very important that people be free to express their fears, albeit in a mature and responsible manner. Which is what Williams was kinda, sorta, maybe doing. O’Reilly’s a right wing propagandist (just like, say, Keith Olbermann’s a Liberal propagandist), and his show, despite all the pathetic ballyhoo to the contrary, is the opposite of “fair and balanced,” it’s a paean to spin. So while Williams wasn’t screaming from the rafters and calling for a renewal of The Crusades, The O’Reilly Factor was not the right venue to get a mature, responsible discussion of complex issues.
And then this morning he gets fired. NPR dumps him, over the phone no less, not even extending him the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting after 10 years of employment. What’s more, in a move of incredible classlessness, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller gave an interview to Atlanta Journal Constitution in which she rubbed salt in the wound. First she split hairs about “Juan” (she refuses to call him Williams, which, given the circumstances, is incredibly unprofessional and belittling) being an independent contract worker, not an NPR employee or staff member; funny, I usually associate such distinctions with grounds for not offering workers health care, not for covering your ass. Schiller then justified the firing by stating that NPR news analysts such as Williams should not make controversial comments. Wow. News analysts (analysts, not reporters) should not make controversial comments. Think about that one for a moment. And when you’re done, take a look at the potshot CEO Schiller made about Williams in her official release, which was posted online by NPR:
“NPR news analyst Juan Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and his psychiatrist or his publicist.”
Jesus, did she just say that? Did she really just say that? Did the CEO who just publicly fired an employee (pardon me, a mere “independent contractor”) just publicly accuse that person of being mentally ill? Holy shit.
And so the circus continues. So much for responsible, mature, open discourse.