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Politically Correct Radio

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, October 22, 2010

"There is nothing more painful to me at this stage of 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."

Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at the PUSH convention in 1993. "(W)hen 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."

Juan Williams, on Bill O'Reilly's show, for which he was fired.

I wish I didn't get nervous seeing black men behind me on the street. I wish there was no correlation between race and crime.

I wish 100 percent of the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 had not been members of one religion. I wish we didn't hear diatribes on a daily basis threatening our children and us in the name of Allah. I wish I didn't get nervous seeing Muslims on a plane.

But firing Juan Williams won't make it so.

What exactly was he fired for? According to National Public Radio, "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." Come again?

I've known Juan for decades. He is not a bigot. He went on to warn O'Reilly against blaming all Muslims for the actions of extremists, just as all Christians should not be blamed for the likes of Timothy McVeigh or all Catholics for the death of Dr. George Tiller or all Jews for the death of Prime Minister Rabin.

Is it really inconsistent with "editorial standards and practices" for a "news analyst" to honestly express his opinions on another network? Or was it because it was Fox News?

Juan and I have been contributors to Fox News for more than a decade. We're part of the "balance" in "fair and balanced." I've taken heat for it from my Democratic friends, and he's taken heat from others at NPR. My answer -- and I expect his, as well -- is that because of the strong conservative voices heard on Fox, it is all the more important for there to be strong voices expressing other views.

You could certainly make a case that reporters should stick to reporting and not cross the line between reporting the news and expressing opinions about it. But that line gets crossed every Sunday morning and most days in between.

Besides, Juan's title at NPR was "analyst." On O'Reilly's show, he was clearly expressing an opinion -- one shared, painfully, by many people. Others are free to disagree, on both Fox News and NPR. But to fire an analyst for expressing an honest opinion violates the very principles of free expression and the First Amendment on which NPR so often prides itself.

I have no doubt that Juan will be just fine. I'm sure there will be plenty of room for him at Fox. I'm sure conservatives will rush to make him their hero and use his firing as a weapon with which to attack NPR.

As an NPR listener, that saddens me. Public radio doesn't have to be politically correct radio. NPR does many wonderful things. This was not one of them. I fear that in the end, NPR -- and its listeners -- will pay the price.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.              

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