Juan Williams, the $2 million martyr

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There's an element of jealousy that needs to be acknowledged in l'affaire Juan Williams. Very few of us in the media commentariat will ever see the kind of dollars that will rain down on Mr. Williams over the next three years in his newly expanded role at Fox News.

That alone makes us bitter and hostile.

Mr. Williams hit the equivalent of the lottery last week when NPR fired him by phone for what it perceived as anti-Muslim statements he made in his role as Bill O'Reilly's "liberal" conscience on "The O'Reilly Factor."

Within a day of being sacked by NPR, Mr. Williams was offered a $2 million contract by Fox News. That's the kind of career rebound most of us wouldn't even dare imagine, especially after admitting as Mr. Williams did that he gets "nervous" whenever airplane passengers wearing "Muslim garb" take their seats in coach.

Using his own irrational fears as a springboard, Mr. Williams attempted to school Mr. O'Reilly on the unfairness of stereotyping Muslims or any group based on the actions of a few. It was a little too much nuance in the sea of bellicosity that passes for dialogue on "The O'Reilly Factor."

Mr. Williams' point also was lost on his chablis-swilling, brie-eating bosses at NPR. Because they were obviously looking for a reason to show their troublesome "news analyst" the door, his admission that Muslims made him nervous provided an opportunity to appear virtuous while trimming a bore from the payroll.

Somewhere, former USDA official Shirley Sherrod was smacking her forehead. You don't have to be a fan of Mr. Williams -- I'm not -- to see the unfairness of firing a long-term employee who also happens to be the network's only non-white news analyst without benefit of a face-to-face conversation explaining why.

NPR's hastiness in firing Mr. Williams mirrors the big media trend of firing high-profile journalists and commentators perceived as offending a significant part of its constituency.

CNN canned Rick Sanchez for offensive comments about Jews and nixed Octavia Nasr for praising a Hezbollah leader; Hearst sacked Helen Thomas for an anti-Semitic rant. All the firings came within a day, if not hours, of the stories' saturation coverage. Firing Mr. Williams was NPR's contribution to this depressing trend. The media environment is toxic enough without commentators having to worry about perceived biases, but not actual biased reporting becoming a pretext for dismissal.

In what now seems like a golden age of journalism, it took months to fire Don Imus back in 2007. The days of a corporation agonizing over context and how to weigh various fireable offenses are over.

Obviously, Mr. Williams and NPR outgrew each other years ago. The mystery is why NPR decided to make a martyr out of him instead of simply allowing his contract to lapse. No one would have missed his five minute-a-week gig on "Weekend Edition Saturday." Fox might have even picked him up for a song once he was adrift without a media patron.

They may be scoundrels at Fox News, but you can't imagine Roger Ailes bouncing one of his commentators or anchors simply because of a perceived "bias" against Muslims, Jews, blacks, Hispanics, atheists, liberals or gays. Glenn Beck lost a big chunk of his ratings since last year and advertisers are spooked by an ongoing boycott, but his position at the cable network has never been more solid.

I have a perverse respect for Fox News because it knows its place in the media universe -- its bread and butter is strong commentary and conservative advocacy, not news. Fox also understands the concept of loyalty to its talent, no matter how misplaced it may be. It doesn't cave to group pressure or outside criticism because its most obnoxious voices provide the entire network with an indelible identity.

Some argue that Fox can afford to operate more fearlessly than its competitors because it is unconstrained by journalistic standards, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Geraldo Rivera and Shepard Smith, Fox News' in-house "liberals," are also respected, though iconoclastic, journalists who refuse to act like second-class citizens at the conservative network.

The terrible irony here is that Mr. Williams will now be paid a fortune to be Fox's "conscientious liberal," although he is hardly that. His original comments about Muslims were misconstrued by NPR and Fox, but he's opportunistic enough to let that misunderstanding stand. He's crying "censorship" now, although he knows he was actually fired for being two-faced.

Still, feeling sorry for Mr. Williams is like feeling sorry for Goethe's Faust. How does it profit a journalist to collect $2 million and forfeit his soul? Only Juan Williams can say. What we can say in the meantime is: Well played, Juan. Well played.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631


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