On Juan Williams, Muslims, Media, Fear, America


When I'm not working on Everything is ablaze!, i.e. nearly always, I work for NewsTrust, because there, unlike here, my work enables me to pay rent and buy groceries. Today on NewsTrust, I'm comparing stories on NPR's decision to fire Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims and airplanes on The O'Reilly Factor. Since I spend most of my days immersed in mass media and reviewing the content, I usually don't have much energy left to expound on it (or, frankly, anything else) here. I remained silent on Shirley Sherrod, on Rick Sanchez, and on other such national identity crises, mostly because the market seemed saturated with bloviations. Maybe it's unwarranted, but the Juan Williams incident, as reported pretty fairly by the New York Times, has finally provoked me into punditry. I suspect that's because it's about Muslims.

Of the reactions to Williams' firing I've read, I agree most closely with Glenn Greenwald of Salon, who thinks of this incident as a long due correction of a double standard. I think the media have been allowed way, way too much leeway in inciting anti-Muslim fervor in the U.S. this election cycle, giving cult leader Pastor Terry Jones the attention he craved for threatening to burn a Qur'an, referring to the planned Park51 community center as the "Ground Zero Mosque" for months, and all kinds of other stories you probably remember. Whether or not there is a real, widespread undercurrent of hate/fear toward Muslims in the United States, the media have gone on a ratings joyride by trumping it up and parading it around, forcing it onto all of us. Nine years have passed since 9/11, and the only attempted copycat terror attacks by professed Muslims on airplanes since then have been ridiculous failures. The two men who attempted these attacks will go down in internet history as the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, and no one will remember their names. It's not newsworthy to raise fears about unfounded threats. That's more like propaganda than journalism. The reason terrorism is called terrorism is because it uses messaging to induce fear, also known as terror. Isn't it counterproductive to relay the terrorists' message for them on The O'Reilly Factor, with so much actual news to talk about?

This is a tired argument, I know, and I'm verging dangerously close to calling Bill O'Reilly a terrorist. All of this philosophizing is almost a separate question from whether or not Juan Williams should have been fired. Look at the weird, cloak-and-dagger way NPR covered the story themselves. It's clear why they did it; he was bad for the brand, they fired him, that's it. They were uneasy with his relationship with Fox News, and they don't want to turn off their audience, whose anti-Fox News tendencies I don't want to bother Googling for accurate measurement. I don't think anyone would question a privately-held company's right to protect their brand this way, though P.J. Salvatore from Breitbart.com raises the question of whether NPR is different, because it's funded by taxpayers. His argument is not very rigorous from a constitutional perspective, but the question is worth asking in some way.

The more important question, though, is this: To what extent are the media responding to anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., and to what extent are they generating it? The fervor expressed by cultural figures and everyday folks in interviews is real; it feels real, anyway, but would they be so worked up about it, would they think about it at all, if they weren't confronted with it on the radio and on TV every day? How many non-Muslim Americans actually see a Muslim, or even an Islamic symbol, on a day-to-day basis, other than in the media? They may see people they judge to be Muslim, but they are often wrong, because they're acting off of inaccurate, sketchy impressions from the media. As the Pew Research Center recently showed us, Americans barely know a thing about their own religions, let alone Islam, which plays such a small role in American religious life that Pew didn't even study Muslims' responses to the quiz. The media, I assert, are in complete control of the American perception of Islam. Respectable news media, such as NPR, have an ethical responsibility not to promote bias. Cable news channels, which, in the interest of political correctness, I will call Media of Alternative Orientations to Respect, don't care about ethics. Williams will move (the rest of the way) to Fox News, receive a huge pay raise, and that will be that. Don't worry about him. He'll be fine. (UPDATE: See?)

Well, the Other Side will respond, what about the fact that Muslim terrorists do target the Americans? Indeed.

I don't want to go all the way into this. You may be surprised to hear this from me, but I think this is a subject so sensitive that I don't really want to publicize my views on it. I wish more people would treat it that way. The moral wake of September 11th has created the most emotionally charged set of political issues to emerge in my lifetime. It has caused so, so much more harm in the last nine years than was caused on that morning. Maybe one could argue that it was all caused on that morning, but that's not how I see it. The measure of a people in history is not what happens to them, but how they respond to it. I am embarrassed by our response, and I don't want to talk about it. Much.

There have, I will grant, been other terror attacks by professed Muslims in the country since 9/11. One of them, the Fort Hood shooting, was successful. The others, such as the aforementioned flammable articles of clothing, and the Times Square bomb-like object, were fabulous failures. Other massive terror attacks have been committed by Muslim groups around the world, such as 7/7/05 bombings in London and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. There have also been many unspecified warnings from the intelligence community about Muslim terrorist threats, such as the recent vague threats from Europe. Many of these events, including the 9/11 attack, share common themes, such as ignored, long-standing intelligence alerts, or a man named Anwar al-Awlaki (UPDATE 5/4/12: Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a CIA-operated Predator drone on September 30, 2011).

Surely, these commonalities, whether real or merely insinuated, could imply to frightened Americans some kind of vast, international movement centered around Islam. I urge everyone to do some real, deep, meaningful research into all of these cases, rather than accepting the simple explanation. No matter what one believes, it's impossible to deny the centrality of the mass media in the ongoing narrative of Islamic terrorism. It's like a free, multimedia, 24/7 commercial for al Qaeda, or whatever vague specter it represents in the minds of the audience.

Personally, I'd like to see an end to terrorism. The media could use one less fearmonger.