Interview with Kam Williams
Juan Williams was born in Panama on April 10, 1954, but raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn by his mother Alma, a seamstress, and his father, Roger, a boxing trainer. After graduating from Haverford College, Juan went on to become one of America’s leading journalists.
He is presently a political analyst for Fox News, a regular panelist on Fox’s public-affairs program Fox News Sunday, and a columnist for both FoxNews.com and for The Hill. He has also hosted National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and anchored Fox News Channel’s weekend news coverage.
A former senior correspondent and political analyst for NPR, he is the author of the bestselling book Enough, the critically-acclaimed biography Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, and the national bestseller Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965, the companion volume to the Emmy-winning PBS television series. During his twenty-one-year career at the Washington Post, Williams served as an editorial writer, an op-ed columnist, and a White House reporter.
His articles have appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, The Atlantic Monthly, Ebony, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and The New Republic. Here, he talks about his new book, Muzzled, a memoir generally bemoaning the pressure nowadays to speak in sanitized, politically-correct sound bites and specifically reflecting upon his being fired by NPR for honestly expressing his feelings about getting on a plane with Muslims.
Kam Williams: Hi Juan, thanks for the interview.
Juan Williams: Hey, Kam, you’re very welcome. If you don’t mind, I’m eating a salad. Let me know, if you find it obnoxious.
KW: Not a problem. I’ve often talked to folks in real-life situations, such as to Soledad O’Brien while she was cooking in the kitchen surrounded by four kids. I like it because this sort of stuff tends to humanize the interview. Anyway, I have a lot of questions from my readers and my editors, just let you know that I’ll be mixing them in with some of my own.
JW: That’s cool, man.
KW: I went to high school in your neck of the woods. Do you remember Brooklyn Prep at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Carroll Street in Bed-Stuy?
KW: What is the biggest lesson you learned from the experience of being fired by NPR?
JW: I think the bottom-line takeaway lesson for me was that there’s intolerance on the left that I had not fully appreciated. Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, I had come to think that it was the Archie Bunker crowd on the right that was rigid and inflexible, which they certainly were guilty of back then in terms of the Civil Rights Era. In this instance, I discovered that people on the left react out of anger if you vary at all from their orthodoxy. And it resulted in my firing. But in general, they might ostracize you and say you’re not a good Democrat. It’s unbelievable! Or if the conversation is about race, they’ll say you’re not a good brother or even call you a bigot or an Uncle Tom.
KW: Or your boss might suggest you need to see a shrink. How did you take that?
JW: Being fired was bad enough, but then having the president of the company say publicly that my comments should be kept between me and my psychiatrist, and that all you get out of me were words from publicists, was further upsetting because it suggested that I was infantile and incapable of speaking for myself. I found it incredible. I realized that they will lower the hammer on you, if they feel you are not following their path.
KW: What message do you want people to take away from Muzzled?
JW: To resist the temptation in the current media landscape to listen only to people you agree with. In order to have a good sense of what’s really going on in this country you also need to read those publications and to watch those TV programs and to listen to those radio shows featuring opposing views. You have to talk to people who disagree with you while showing mutual respect, all in service of better ideas and better solutions for the country’s problems.
KW: If we all go around ‘un-muzzled,’ how soon before we’re approaching a hate speech walkabout?
JW: Oh, cool question! Being un-muzzled is not about engaging in hate speech. That’s not the point of the book at all. Its aim is to encourage “honest debate” which is why that’s in the subtitle. The extremists saying the rudest and sometimes the stupidest things aren’t being muzzled. In fact, some of them are making a lot of money doing that. The problem is that those of us who are trying to engage in honest debate are being muzzled and discouraged from listening to and associating with people with different ideas as a warning to everybody else in the club that independent thinkers will be shunned and ostracized.
KW: What did you think about MSNBC’s suspension of Mark Halperin for referring to President Obama as an [expletive]?
JW: I thought it was appropriate.
KW: Did you see any similarities between what happened to you and what happened to Shirley Sherrod whose speech was edited to make her look like a racist?
JW: Yes, I think my words were intentionally taken out of context by people who were trying to harm me.
KW: Would you say you’ve moved to the right over the years?
JW: It’s hard for me to have that level of self-awareness. But that does seem to be the perception others have of me. I’m still very much in favor of gun control, a woman’s right to choose, and affirmative action which would make me a liberal. So, I haven’t changed in terms of my own inner GPS system, if you will, I don’t see any radical changes except perhaps like Bill Cosby I’m commenting as a journalist about what I see as critical issues for our society, such as the high out-of-wedlock birth rate, the breakdown of the family, and so forth.
KW: Based on the information regarding terrorists since the 9/11 attacks, up to now I don’t recall any wearing traditional Muslim clothes. So why are you afraid?
JW: Because there’s a clear link in my mind between radical Islam extremism and terrorism. I wouldn’t be able to identify most Muslims based on their dress. But when I can, I have this instinctive fear. Believe me, it’s not a fully thought out opinion, but just a reaction. I still have that feeling, and that’s the reality.
KW: There has been a lot of debate recently about the federal funding for NPR. Where do you come down on this issue today?
JW: I initially stayed away from commenting on it, because I felt that anything I said could be misinterpreted as sour grapes. Upon my firing, the issue instantly became politicized, with Republicans calling for the withdrawal of all public funding of NPR. So, I stayed away from the issue until the man who runs the Democratic Congressional Caucus sent out a letter saying, “We have to protect NPR’s funding because it’s the answer to Rush Limbaugh.” I said to myself, “Wait a minute!” because that sounds like NPR is indebted to the Democrats for its funding. That is not a good working situation for honest journalism. So, I think it’s now time to end the charade and just have NPR rely on its listeners and on advertisers who ought to be eager to have access to its affluent, highly-educated audience.
KW: Given that NPR’s listenership is mostly liberal upper-income urban and suburban whites, aren’t continued government subsidies unnecessary at this point? Surely such a devoted and wealthy listener base or the advertisers looking to target them will be able to fill the 5 percent gap in NPR’s budget that it claims comes from the federal government, yes?
KW: Kevin Williams, director of the documentary “The Fear of a Black Republican,” asks: Do you think that the Republican Party will completely forego the African American vote in the 2012 Presidential Election?
JW: I do, and I think it’s a mistake. I wrote a column about Newt Gingrich’s recent speech in Baltimore where he stated that Republicans need to reach out to the black community and make the case that Barack Obama hasn’t done all that is possible about the high poverty and unemployment rates and the declining quality of the public schools. I thought the speech was a revelation because, whether you think Gingrich is right or wrong, you never hear Republicans say they could do a better job of appealing to African-Americans. As we see the dominoes get lined up for the 2012 race, I believe most Republicans will try to activate their base in the white community while making some small inroads in the Hispanic community.
KW: Do you think that African Americans will basically vote as a bloc for President Obama or is there an opening for the Republican Party’s challenger to win a significant percentage of their votes?
JW: I don’t think there’s an opening. The polls that I see still indicate the existence of overwhelming support for the President in the black community, despite a few loud critics like Cornel West. But there’s no evidence that those complaints have diminished the level of support for Obama.
KW: What advice you have to share which might help her enter and navigate the profession at a time when journalists appear to live continually stressful lives, choked by the forces of market volatility, bottom-line pressures, political biases of media ownership and management while simultaneously aspiring to live up to the canons of professional and ethical journalism?
JW: Well, for me, at 57, the key has been that I love journalism, I want to be a journalist, and I feel blessed to have been able to be in the profession. My sense of it is that I write about things that fascinate me. From the time I was a little boy in Brooklyn, I wanted to know how power works in American society. Why some people get their trash picked up while others didn’t. And why the police respond in some communities intending to help and in other intending to arrest or to silence citizens. So, I always wanted to tell the story of how power works in America. And beginning with Eyes on the Prize through my biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, I’ve been able to tell those stories. So, find stories that you want to tell. And I believe that if those stories [are told] effectively, then you’ll find an audience. Alex Haley once said to me, “Find the good and praise it.” That’s the key to good writing.
KW: Has Fox ever asked you to hack into somebody’s cell phone to get a scoop?
JW: [LOL] Is that a serious question?
KW: No, I was asking it tongue-in-cheek. What do you think of the debt ceiling debate?
JW: I think it’s a great illustration of what I’m talking about in my book. Democrats and Republicans can’t even have an honest discussion about the depth of the debt problem in this country. Democrats were willing to make cuts yet Republicans refused to raise taxes on even the most-wealthy Americans. It’s crazy!
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
JW: I wish I had a cute retort, but nothing comes to mind.
KW: Are you ever afraid?
JW: I was afraid my career was over, when they fired me.
KW: Are you happy?
JW: I live a very stressful life with lots of assignments and deadlines.
KW: What was the worst business decision you ever made?
JW: Listening to a friend who told me to invest in a stock. I ended up losing every dime.
KW: What key qualities do you believe all successful people share?
JW: Perseverance, optimism, and a good spirit about them.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
JW: As a journalist who made a difference telling the story of his time and of his generation.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Juan. I really appreciate it.
JW: Nice to make your acquaintance, Kam, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.