Starting School with Juan Williams

Posted on August 21, 2011

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My son starts 5th grade Wednesday, and we are getting ready to begin our new normal. I’ve heard that 5th grade is a time for big change physically (BO starts among other things, but don’t let him know I told you) and emotionally, and I feel like this is the start of some interesting and challenging times to ahead.

Juan Williams

Although we don’t start our classes at Ohio State University until Sept. 21, I feel like I, too, will be getting schooled on Aug. 24, when I get the chance to interview for OSU’s Writers Talk Juan Williams, formerly of NPR, now of Fox News, and as steeped in knowledge and experience as he has been, recently, in controversy.

I didn’t focus much on Mr. Williams during all the years I listened to him on NPR (WCBE 90.5 here in Columbus) except to think him insightful of thought and kindly of voice. But he jumped to the journalistic forefront Oct. 21, 2010, when he was fired by NPR for comments made on the “O’Reilly Factor.” After Bill O’Reilly talked about statements regarding Muslims that him in trouble on “The View,” Williams said, “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 the 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.”

He went on to caution against blaming all members of a religion:

“Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.”

NPR heard the first comments and responded by terminating Williams’ contract, proclaiming his viewpoints were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

But much like Lord Voldemort’s rebounding killing curse that made Harry Potter stronger, so did NPR’s move appear to enhance, not dilute, Williams’ career. He locked into a robust contract with Fox News, and wrote a book called “Muzzled,” which speaks about his personal experience with NPR and the nationwide “muzzling” of reasonable people with middle-of-the-road viewpoints our culture is experiencing.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people both famous and infamous, but I’m pretty excited to be part of this dialogue. How exactly does a liberal promoter of civil rights reconcile his role on a right of right-wing news channel? How does it feel to be so personally and publicly slapped for a statement of personal opinion? In a world where opinions are like you-know-what, and pundits are becoming celebrities, how do you know when opinion over steps acceptable journalistic bounds? What can our student journalists learn from his experience?

What would you like to ask Juan Williams? Now is your chance. Please email me your questions by Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 8 a.m., and I will try to ask him. This way we can all start Wednesday getting an education.

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Posted in: Journalism