(Oct. 22) -- NPR is defending itself against cries of liberal bias and of being too "PC," as critics from both right and left launch a rare joint defense of Juan Williams. Some thought the news analyst's comment about Muslims was racist, but others are standing up for his free speech and say Williams' remark reflects a reality in America.
The row has even sparked a U.S. senator to call for NPR's federal funding to be yanked.
Williams told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly on Monday that he gets worried when he sees Muslims on airplanes. "I'm not a bigot," he said. "But when I get on the plane ... 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."
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Longtime NPR news analyst Juan Williams was fired because comments he made on Fox News "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices," NPR said in a statement.
The longtime NPR analyst also said he agrees with O'Reilly that America is facing a "Muslim dilemma." And he said that political correctness can "lead to some kind of paralysis, where you don't address reality."
NPR issued a statement late Wednesday saying it had given Williams notice that his contract was being severed, saying his remarks to Fox were "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
Thursday, NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, said she agreed with the decision to fire Williams but wrote on her blog that "NPR handled this situation badly" and "I think NPR owed him a chance to explain himself."
Williams is the latest in a series of media figures to be ousted for voicing their opinions about Muslims, Arabs and the Middle East.
Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas was forced to retire from Hearst Newspapers in June after negative reactions to comments she made about Israel, Jews and Palestine. And CNN's senior editor for Mideast affairs, Octavia Nasr, was also fired in July after writing on Twitter that she respects a Hezbollah leader. And there have been a number of other prominent firings for politically incorrect statements.
Williams' dismissal came after the Council on American-Islamic Relations launched a Facebook campaign asking NPR to address his comments. "Such irresponsible and inflammatory comments would not be tolerated if they targeted any other racial, ethnic or religious minority," CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote.
Within 24 hours of his firing, Williams lashed back at NPR, writing on the Fox News website that NPR fired him for "telling the truth."
"The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims," he wrote. "This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings."
Many people -- including such unlikely bedfellows as Sarah Palin and Whoopi Goldberg -- agreed. Some defended Williams' free speech, calling him a victim of the same politically correct attitude he railed against on O'Reilly's show Monday.
"NPR officials seem to have a free-floating hair trigger oversensitivity, even about their own thoughts," Newsweek columnist Mickey Kaus wrote. He points out that even as NPR CEO Vivian Schiller defended her firing of Williams, she was forced to apologize for some of her own words as well.
On Thursday, Schiller spoke at the Atlanta Press Club, where she told a crowd that Williams should have kept his feeling about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." Hours later she issued a statement apologizing for speaking "hastily" and making a "thoughtless remark," according to an NPR blog.
But Schiller sought to defend Williams' dismissal, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there have been "several instances over the last couple of years where we have felt Juan has stepped over the line... This isn't a case of one strike and you're out."
On Thursday night, Williams appeared on O'Reilly's show again, saying he suspects NPR fired him because he doesn't "fit in their box."
"I'm not predictable, black, liberal," he said. "They were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I'm appearing on Fox News. They don't want me talking to you." Now it's also emerged that Williams has signed a $2 million contract with Fox.
But Schiller told the Journal-Constitution "this is not about Fox News."
"It's not about a political agenda. This is not about even validating or invalidating [Williams'] feelings," she said. When a journalist expresses an opinion, it "undermines their credibility as a journalist or in Juan's case, a news analyst for NPR," she said. "Those two things cannot go together."
Among those who disagree are conservative commentators like Palin and Mike Huckabee -- both fellow Fox News analysts -- who are encouraging supporters to boycott NPR. "I will no longer accept interview requests from NPR as long as they are going to practice a form of censorship," Huckabee said.
Palin wrote on Twitter: "NPR defends 1st Amendment Right, but will fire u if u exercise it. Juan Williams: u got taste of Left's hypocrisy, they screwed up firing you"
Sponsored Links Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, said he plans to introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also called for a congressional investigation into NPR.
"The U.S. Congress should investigate NPR and consider cutting off their money," Gingrich told Fox on Thursday. "Every listener to NPR should be enraged that there's this kind of bias against an American."
Goldberg -- who herself caused a stir when she walked off the set of ABC's "The View" to protest O'Reilly's comments blaming Muslims for the Sept. 11th attacks -- also called Williams' firing "ridiculous."
"[T]he firing of Juan was a total mistake and sends the wrong message," she said Thursday on "The View." "NPR, get yourself together, because we've all got to work on this together."