Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate
- Juan Williams
- 281 pp.
- July 26, 2011
Juan Williams, the NPR reporter who was summarily dismissed from his position at National Public Radio for a remark made during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor,” details his dismissal, and decries the state of our national discourse.
Reviewed by Stephen Goodwin
Last October, Juan Williams was summarily dismissed from his position at National Public Radio for a remark made during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News Channel. O’Reilly had just caused a flap by declaring “The Muslims killed us here” on another TV program, “The View,” and he challenged Williams to explain what was wrong with making that statement. Williams agreed with O’Reilly that “political correctness” could make people ignore facts, and he added, “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.”
That exchange went viral, and two days later Williams was fired by Ellen Weiss, the vice president of the news division at NPR. Her message was succinct: “She informed me that I had violated NPR’s values for editorial commentary and my contract as a news analyst was being terminated.”
Williams, a senior correspondent for NPR and one of the most decorated journalists in Washington, was “stunned,” and the first chapter of his new book, Muzzled, is a detailed account of the episode, its causes and its consequences. Williams declares that his purpose is “not to get people to feel sorry for me” — but he needn’t have worried. Even readers who begin the book feeling that Williams was badly treated are likely to find their sympathy wavering as he rips into Weiss and NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller (both of whom resigned within months) and savages NPR for its rigid, liberal orthodoxy: “If you dare to challenge or deviate from it even slightly, you will be punished.”
Before long, Williams begins to sound like an angry spouse in a divorce proceeding, tiresome and shrill. He doesn’t strengthen his case by gushing about the “heartening” support he finds at Fox from people like Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. He professes to be “surprised” – well, duh! The incident served up a juicy opportunity for the Fox crew to bash NPR, one of its favorite targets, for its liberal bias, and to bolster the case for suspending all public money for NPR. Within days, Williams signed a three-year contract with Fox News for a reported $2 million, considerably more than he was making at NPR.
In the author’s recounting, NPR is the villain and Fox News is the hero, swooping in to rescue not only Williams but the principle of free, open debate. As he says with characteristic self-aggrandizement, “My point is that what happened to me was not about me alone. It was an assault on journalism and honest debate.”
After this unapologetic first chapter, Williams recovers his balance. Devoting the remainder of the book to major issues like race, immigration, health care, national security and abortion, he outlines in broad and convincing strokes the way that our national discourse has become increasingly polarized. He documents how “political correctness” has become a bludgeon wielded by both conservatives and liberals, and how the loud voices of extremists have come to dominate. If his chapters sometimes veer off on tangents, and his prose is encrusted with clichés, Williams nevertheless shows us how we got to the place where a “debate” on any serious subject becomes an exercise in brinksmanship and a study in political dysfunction.
Yet Muzzled doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle: An Assault on Honest Debate. Though Williams offers himself as an example of one who has been muzzled, his claims for the book would have been strengthened by including chapter and verse on other journalists who’ve met with similar restraints, or by walking the reader through the process by which a media organization sets its agenda, privileging some stories and perspectives while suppressing others (only NPR is held up to this kind of scrutiny). Similarly, it seems that after mentioning notable instances when the government either prevented or attempted to manipulate coverage -- for instance, about “enhanced” interrogation methods, or the use of wiretapping for national security -- Williams could have provided more detail about the ongoing, vital, and often bitter push-pull between the government and the press.
A few specific cases of this sort might have added a valuable dimension to Muzzled, but Williams’s vision is sufficiently bleak without it. In his portrait of an angry, divided nation, it clearly takes courage for anyone — journalist or politician — to speak out independently. That’s what Williams does here, dishing out blame in equal measure to the left and the right (including his new employer). In the closing pages of the book, he professes his belief that “our freedom of speech remains vibrant, strong, and intact … we must modify our behavior to increase our openness to one another, to carry on a civil conversation, and to listen respectfully to one another’s ideas.”
He evidently believes that this can happen, though the source of his optimism is a bit of a mystery. But let me give credit where credit is due: Juan Williams has called for sane, honest debate in his book, and in his job at Fox News, he tries to put it into practice. A few nights ago, when I tuned into Fox to see how he was faring in his new job, he was locking horns with Megyn Kelly about the debt ceiling. He was attempting to make a case for a balanced solution to the debt problem, one that would include increased tax revenues along with spending cuts. Kelly was having none of it. Disdainful and sneering, she talked over everything he said. Williams was civil, agreeing with several of her points, and she still kept drowning him out. He was trying gamely, but in that setting, it was all but impossible to hear what he had to say.
Stephen Goodwin is the author of three novels. He teaches in the M.F.A. program at George Mason University. Visit his website at http://mason.gmu.edu/~sgoodwin.