Shirley Sherrod, meet Juan Williams.
Three months ago, right-wingers clipped a video of Sherrod to make her look like a racist. They circulated the video on the Internet, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture fired her.
Now it’s happening again. This time, left-wingers have done the editing. They clipped a video of Juan Williams, a commentator for Fox News and NPR, to make him look like an anti-Muslim bigot. They circulated the video on the Internet, and last night, NPR fired him.
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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.
In its statement announcing Williams’ termination, NPR said: “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” (You can read NPR’s full statement here.)
The passage quoted by NPR and the Times is a dead ringer for a video clip of Williams, branded and distributed by Think Progress. The clip, which cleverly isolates the offending comment, has circulated among left-wing Web sites, just as the Sherrod clip circulated among right-wing sites. (The Washington Post also directs readers to the clip.) But the full transcript of Williams’ appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, like the full video of Sherrod’s speech to the NAACP, tells a much more complicated story.
On the program, Williams was responding to host Bill O’Reilly, who had gotten into trouble for comments about Islam and terrorism. In his initial answer, Williams said exactly what the video excerpt shows: that he worries when he sees passengers in Muslim garb, and that the Times Square bomber declared a U.S. war with Muslims.
Williams is right about the bomber. When Faisal Shahzad pled guilty in the Times Square plot, he told the court: “Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me only a first droplet of the flood that will follow me.” That isn’t a legitimate basis for judging all Muslims. But it is, as Williams said, a fact. And Williams’ confession that he fears religious Muslims isn’t necessarily an endorsement of bigotry. Remember what Jesse Jackson said 17 years ago: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it’s true of Williams.
The damning video clip of Williams, like the damning clip of Sherrod, cuts off the speaker just as he’s about to reverse course. According to the full transcript, immediately after saying, “I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,” Williams continues: “But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.” That continuation has been conveniently snipped from the excerpt.
A few seconds later, Williams challenges O’Reilly’s suggestion that “the Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” Williams points out how wrong it would be to generalize similarly about Christians:
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.
Williams reminds O’Reilly that “there are good Muslims.” A short while later, O’Reilly asks: “Juan, who is posing a problem in Germany? Is it the Muslims who have come there, or the Germans?” Williams refuses to play the group blame game. “See, you did it again,” he tells O’Reilly. “It’s extremists.”
Williams warns O’Reilly that televised statements about Muslims as a group can foment bigotry and violence. “The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby’s neck,” Williams reminds him. “Or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero … We don’t want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they heard rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly.”
I’m not saying Williams is the world’s most enlightened guy. He’s wrong, for example, about the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. And it’s certainly unsettling to hear him admit that he worries when he sees Muslims in distinctive dress. But admitting such fears doesn’t make you a bigot. Sometimes, to work through your fears, you have to face them honestly. You have to think through the perils of acting on those fears. And you have to explain to others why they, too, should transcend their anxieties or resentments and treat people as individuals.
That’s what Shirley Sherrod did in her speech to the NAACP. It’s what Juan Williams did in his interview on Fox News. It was wrong of conservatives to take Sherrod’s remarks out of context. It’s just as wrong of liberals to do the same to Williams. The USDA, after reviewing Sherrod’s remarks in their entirety, offered to rehire her. Now it’s your turn, NPR.
(Update: Full video of Williams’ exchange with O’Reilly is available here.)