Magazine | November 15, 2010, Issue

NPR’s Class Act

Juan Williams’s real crime was to refuse to stick with his own kind

A few years ago, during my weekly commentary on the local public-radio station, I used the word “midget.”

I was explaining the ruthless and whip-fast efficiency of the Hollywood casting machine. Here, in the spirit of transparency, is what I said:

Describe a character as young, male, originally from Texas, and the next day your office waiting area is filled with young actors in identical jeans, boots, and patterned cowboy shirts with snaps, all waiting to read for the role. Describe a female character as “brainy” and every single actress you see will come in wearing glasses and some kind of serious-smelling cologne. They’ll smile at you when you walk by with a single-minded determination to sell. Sell yourself, is what they hear in acting classes and audition workshops. Sell.

Once, years ago, during a late-night rewrite for a show set in a bar on St. Patrick’s Day, we wrote in a character dressed as a leprechaun.

The next morning it was impossible to get to my office without stepping on the tiny, delicate feet of dozens of surly midgets, all of whom apparently had a lot of history with each other.

That’s to be expected. It’s sort of institutionalized humiliation for the actors — you come in to read a few snippets of dialogue for a couch full of writers and producers, who pretend to listen and force a few laughs just to make this awkward, painful encounter slightly less unbearable.

Bear this in mind, if you ever have to describe a group of people who are below-average in height but who are not, clinically speaking, dwarves: They do not like to be called “midgets.”

The “M-word,” as one angry e-mail referred to it, is no longer okay. “Little person” is the currently preferred language, and I think it’s safe to say that the littler you are, the angrier you get.

I was not fired from public radio for that — I think most of us around the station simply didn’t know that using the word “midget” stirs up a mini hornet’s nest of pint-sized outrage — but we all took it, in true public-radio fashion, as a teachable moment. A knee-high teachable moment.

Juan Williams, the former “analyst” for NPR, was fired — famously so — for saying something much milder, in a way. He merely confessed, on Fox News, to something that every single honest American could also confess to: that when he’s about to board a plane, and sees a fellow passenger in Muslim garb, he briefly thinks, Uh-oh.

NPR’s president, Vivian Schiller, made it clear that Williams wasn’t fired just for making that rather bland confession. He was fired for a “series of deeply troubling incidents”; raising his eyebrows at the dishdasha in Economy Plus was only the latest, and last, straw.

The firestorm that ensued was all about what you can and can’t say in public and still keep your job on public radio. Among the “cans”: wishing AIDS on North Carolina senator Jesse Helms and/or his grandchildren, as NPR’s legal correspondent Nina Totenberg did in 1995; using the phrase “surly midgets.” Among the “can’ts”: confessing to being briefly freaked out by the burqa in the jetway.

#page#But we all know that it’s not really about what Williams said, but about where he said it. He said it on Fox News, in a conversation with Bill O’Reilly. In other words, he was right there in the League of Super Villains, chatting away with Bill O’Reilly, like Bill O’Reilly is a person you can just chat with without throwing up. Like Fox News is just a news network you can appear on, without wincing and crinkling up your nose, or mugging to the camera like Jon Stewart does when he appears there, like a schoolboy getting away with something.

Williams’s firing had nothing to do with the specifics of his statement — Vivian Schiller admits as much — but with the company he keeps. The pattern of “deeply troubling incidents” that assaulted her exquisite sensibilities were, let’s be honest, the moments when Juan Williams appeared on Fox News. What on earth is an NPR analyst doing there? she asked herself. Look at him! Sitting on panels with O’Reilly and Glenn Beck! Having a cup of coffee (presumably) in the office canteen with Sean Hannity! Palling around with Roger Ailes, the evil mastermind of the entire enterprise! It’s all too much. The surprise isn’t that Williams was fired from NPR, but that it took them so damn long to do it, and when they finally ginned up the courage to pull the trigger, it was over an embarrassingly trivial couple of sentences. Proof, as if any reader of NR needed it, that most non-profits are mismanaged by fools, staffed by incompetents, and utterly unable to act with efficiency and dispatch. A for-profit outfit would have correctly identified Juan Williams as a problem spot and sacked him at the first commercial break of The O’Reilly Factor.

From the smug, deluded bunker of NPR, Fox News is a big, greasy, angry, hate-filled state fair, where right-wing nuttery is passed along like deep-fried Twinkies to an obese and ignorant public. Juan Williams was a crossover artist — everybody loved him on the Brit Hume show on Fox — and that’s usually a good thing. But from the tasteful offices of NPR, it was as if he were conferring, by the power invested in the chyron “Juan Williams, NPR,” a little class to that awful, tacky network. Juan Williams gave Fox News legitimacy. Juan Williams, by his very presence with Bill O’Reilly, made it impossible to paint Fox News as the monotonal mouthpiece of the American Right. So, Juan Williams had to be fired from a network that claims to value diversity of opinion but doesn’t, for bringing diversity of opinion to a network that isn’t supposed to have it but does.

Here’s what’s really going on: Juan Williams broke the class barrier. He refused to stick with his own kind. He started crossing over to the bad part of town, and the group on the good side of town had finally had enough. It’s almost too obvious to point out, but, I mean, ironic, no? What used to be the exclusive province of country-club Republicans — snobbishness, clan rules, punishment for stepping out of line, a paralyzing fear of the great and greasy middle class — is now what drives the fatcat liberals at NPR.

Those poor little people. If only I had used the “M-word” on O’Reilly.

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