The Faustian Bargain of Juan Williams

Juan Williams

Juan Williams

I was upset to hear about Juan Williams and National Public Radio parting company the other day because of comments that Williams made on Fox Network’s Bill O’Reilly Show. The affair got me thinking about Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

We say all kinds of stupid things in the heat of the moment. Therefore, I’m less interested in what Williams said on Fox than in how he reflected back upon his comments later. Here’s a subsequent statement:

Yesterday, NPR fired me 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.

This is not a bigoted statement.

In my opinion, to think that anyone who is Muslim is a potential terrorist is indeed to be guilty of prejudice. Imagine if Williams had said, “Every time I see someone wearing a yarmulke I think he must be one of those Jewish investors like Bernie Madoff who caused the economy to collapse.” Or, “Everytime I see someone wearing a cross, I figure he must be narrow-minded and superstitious.” Or, “Everytime I see a black man who has achieved the success of Juan Williams, I think that he must have gotten there only because of affirmative action.”

We all of us have prejudices, even those commentators who are supposed to take a broad view.  If people demonstrate that they are willing to learn from their mistakes, I believe they should be given some slack. I understand the situation that NPR is in, however. For a news organization that strives to be impartial, how does it appear to the public when the man you are grooming to succeed respected commentator Daniell Schorr thinks “terrorist” every time he encounters Muslims?

The problem is, there are many people on Fox News who think exactly this. What appears to have bothered NPR is that it saw Williams beginning to drink the Fox Kool-Aid.  Apparently NPR had been warning Williams about this danger for some time, and it sounds by Williams’ follow-up comments that he has indeed bought into some of the Fox hysteria:

NPR used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Williams is not describing the NPR that I listen to every day. To talk about “one-party rule and one-sided thinking,” to invoke “gulag,” is to engage in the kind of inflated rhetoric that we have come to associate with the extreme right. (The extreme left has its own version, of course.)

Now for the Faustus angle. Fox News immediately rewarded Williams with a $2 million contract. Blogger Hamilton Nolan essentially calls this a deal with the devil:

But here is what is much easier to see from the outside than it is for you to see from where you’re sitting, Juan: You are not a hero. You’re a decent guy who said something dumb. Apologize, try to improve, and move on. More importantly, these people, these newfound supporters, Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly and Mike Huckabee and Pat Buchanan and Roger Ailes, are not your friends. They are using you, Juan. They are using you because of who you suddenly are: a black, moderate, journalist who was fired from NPR for saying you don’t like Muslims. Those credentials are extremely valuable for Fox News, and for the right wing at large. Because they can be easily presented in a way that bolsters the myth of the “liberal media,” a myth which the right wing has used to shockingly successful effect over the last two decades, to systematically erode the influence of media outlets that they don’t like. Respected, earnest, good media outlets. Like NPR. Now, Juan, you are a convenient tool in their furtherance of this campaign. $2 million is cheap, for them.

. . . Once you climb aboard Fox New for good, Juan, all of the respect that you’ve earned in your long career will immediately begin to disappear, until it is all gone, and you are just one more empty talking suit on the shameful, dishonest panorama of American cable news. You can do better.

“One more empty talking suit?”  Sounds like a version of what Faustus becomes. Now, Fox News is not the devil. But it is also not a legitimate news organization. It is a propaganda outlet for the American right, differing from real news organizations in that it starts from a political position and moves from there without making a good faith effort (despite its claims) to be “fair and balanced.”

Incidentally, I’m not sure whether Fox calling itself “fair and balanced” is more an example of Orwellian doublespeak or testimony to the LaRochefoucauld pensee that “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” At least Fox claims that “fair and balanced” is a good thing.

Anyway, Juan Williams, award-winning reporter and respected book author, has chosen $2 million over substance.

Which is the choice that Marlowe’s Faustus also makes. He is a the leading theologian and physician of his time who has cured “whole cities of the plague.” But this is not enough—he wants riches and sensual delights, which the devil grants him. Once he loses touch with his soul, however, he loses a sense of what’s important. Therefore, his life becomes increasingly frivolous. By the end he has turned into a mere court entertainer, dependent on people in high places, and he dies feeling as though his life has been wasted.

Why do I think that Williams working for NPR or another legitimate news organization would be honoring his soul? Because such organizations call upon people to grapple with the complexities of the world rather than indulging in fearful feelings.

Newspapers honor their souls when they strive for the unvarnished truth. They don’t always succeed—reporters are human, after all—but that is how they measure themselves and how they are measured. Getting the facts right is the value at the core of the enterprise, and if one replaces that value with what is politically expedient, then power and money become the new determiners of truth.

Something comparable is true with a lot of the institutions that Fox commentators attack, including universities, science (especially climate science), government service, the Geneva conventions, the United Nations. Although the institutions don’t always live up to their ideals—but I’d argue they do so far more often that Fox’s pundits claim—we must nevertheless strive to be true to those ideals. When we just create our own realities and attack anyone who doesn’t agree with us, we become as lost as Faustus.

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2 Comments

  1. Robin Bates
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Someone else is thinking along my lines: Andrew Sullivan, blogger for the Daily Dish, writes the following:

    We need to be clear: Fox is neither a news nor an opinion channel. With almost every GOP candidate running for president on its payroll and with massive donations to one political party, it is a propaganda channel. People like Williams who take its money to legitimize it as a credible journalistic enterprise have somewhere along the line lost their soul.

    Here’s the link: andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/10/tnc-pwns-saletan-on-the-sherrod-analogy.html

  2. Sam Kasper
    Posted November 3, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Juan Williams aside, National Public Radio is a tax funded organization and its job should be to inform the people with straight facts. In the majority of my experiences with the station I see it is far from a nonbiased source of information. For any one who talks about biases and listens to NPR thinking it is a balanced source of news, stop and take an outside look at NPR. For any news station funded by your taxes to display any kind of consistent bias is simply an outrage.

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