Ten minutes into our conversation, Juan Williams already seems irritated with me.
My question seems a simple one. The Fox News analyst and author says in his new book Muzzled that one reason he was fired from his other job as a news analyst on National Public Radio last October was an increasingly polarized public discourse. In the book, he says his statement on The O'Reilly Factor that he gets nervous in airports around people in Muslim garb was twisted from a criticism of bigotry into an affirmation of it.
One quote: "Today, such honest debate about the issues becomes collateral damage in an undeclared war by those who make accusations of racism and bigotry whenever their political positions are challenged."
His book also describes how, within hours of his dismissal at NPR, he was given a three-year contract at Fox News Channel, the cable outlet that has turned ideological opposition into a blood sport. Past and present stars there such as Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck are known for turning ideological fights into powerful publicity and huge ratings. Beck called President Barack Obama a racist on Fox News (later, he said he meant to call the president a Marxist). O'Reilly once called me "one of the biggest race-baiters in the country," without really explaining how I earned the title.
So isn't Williams working for a channel that exemplifies the stuff he's criticizing?
"They invited me into the house as contrarian," Williams said, speaking by cell phone from an airport. "The people who created Fox saw there was a hole in terms of there not being a home for strongly conservative voices like Sean Hannity in the TV arena … . (But) this is much, much larger framework than saying Fox came on the scene and created this reality. I think the reality preceded Fox."
Here's where we pretty much had to agree to disagree. I've increasingly seen Fox News as one giant, sophisticated messaging machine supporting conservative ideas in general and the Republican Party specifically. And as cable TV's highest-rated news channel, it has set a template that left-leaning MSNBC and Current TV seem to be copying on the other side of the political spectrum.
Williams doesn't see it that way, saying Fox News is part of a problem affecting all media.
His firing, he says in the book, was a byproduct of specific run-ins with NPR's then-news chief Ellen Weiss and a liberal-leaning orthodoxy in which his statements on Fox News were increasingly verboten; when NPR released a report in January announcing changes in the wake of his ouster, Weiss resigned.
(Full disclosure: I provide commentaries about TV to NPR regularly as a freelance analyst.)
"Things became much more polarized in the media landscape over the 10-year period I was at NPR," Williams said. "For some of the bosses at NPR, it became not just that he's doing cable TV and he's doing radio, but that he's not reliably defined in the NPR mold … . They wanted to control that brand."
It seems, to me, touchy territory; decrying partisanship in media while working for a purveyor of it. But for a guy who seems to enjoy playing the iconoclast wherever he works, it's familiar territory.
"There's a real hunger and appetite now to find credible, trustworthy news sources that are not one-sided in their slant," he said. "And the question is, how do you make that attractive? Because right now, the eyeballs go to strong, domineering personalities with ideological slants in prime time."
I still wonder: Why isn't Williams solving this problem instead of just talking about it?