WASHINGTON – “I’m not a bigot,” longtime news analyst Juan Williams said. Then he talked about getting nervous on a plane when he sees people in Muslim dress. Fair game for one of his employers, Fox News Channel, but a fireable offense for the other, NPR.
Muslim groups were outraged, saying that Williams’ remarks Monday on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” endorsed the idea that all Muslims should be viewed with suspicion. But conservatives and even some liberals said NPR went too far in axing his contract for being honest about his feelings in an interview where he also said it is important to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists.
The opinions Williams expressed on Fox News over the years had already strained his relationship with NPR to the point that the public radio network asked him to stop using the NPR name when he appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show.
NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller said Thursday that Williams had veered from journalistic ethics several times before Monday’s comments.
Controversial opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts, Schiller said, adding that Williams was not a commentator or columnist for NPR.
On his Thursday broadcast, O’Reilly blasted NPR for what he called “a disgraceful decision” and called on Schiller to resign.
“Ms. Schiller is a pinhead,” said O’Reilly.
O’Reilly said Williams was merely describing how he felt, and that “millions of Americans feel the same way.”
Williams and O’Reilly both said they believed he was fired from NPR because of his association with Fox.
“You know what? I didn’t fit into their box,” he said.
In a memo to her staff and affiliate stations, Schiller said the comments violated NPR’s code of ethics, which says journalists should not participate in media “that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
Fox News, meanwhile, announced it had re-signed Williams to a multiyear deal that will give him an expanded role with the network.
Williams stood by his remarks Thursday.
Williams told Fox News his statement was not bigoted, as he said NPR news executive Ellen Weiss had implied Wednesday when she fired him by phone.