Thursday, January 31, 2013

Q&A with author Juan Williams

Juan Williams
Juan Williams is a political analyst for Fox News and a contributor to The Hill newspaper; he also has worked for National Public Radio and The Washington Post. His books include Muzzled, Enough, Thurgood Marshall, and Eyes on the Prize.

Q: In your book Muzzled, you write, “Conservatives listen only to conservatives, and liberals listen only to liberals. People are spared the inconvenience of facts that don’t fit their beliefs and the unpleasantness of seriously considering a point of view other than their own.” Do you think this trend will continue? Why or why not?

A: There is no hard answer to this question—all I can do is look at where we are with the American media, and project where we’re going. We are now coming out of a phase where people listen to radio, watch TV, read magazines that reaffirm their pre-existing opinions. They like to thump the dashboard when they’re driving and say, "My guy tells it like it is!" People live in a bubble on the left and on the right; it’s more pronounced on the right.

We’re coming out of this a little bit. There’s more willingness to talk about moderation. One example is the current immigration debate. Sen. Marco Rubio had to go back to the talk-radio crowd and they were willing to say that something needs to get done here. It’s a very small but positive sign.

A bigger sign is that there are more radio shows, Geraldo Rivera being an example, where the host says, “I lean a little to the right, but I don’t abhor the center or dislike the left.” Andrea Tantaros’s show is another example. It’s not as orthodox hard-right. The money folks behind the scenes must see that the appetite for hard-right radio has slacked.

Q: You describe your experience of being fired by NPR in 2010, and you write, “No one at Fox has ever told me what to say. The same, sadly, cannot be said of NPR.” In your opinion, why is that the case?

A: It seems to me that in the NPR case, under the guise of stronger editorial guidance, even with me as a host or senior political analyst, that NPR was much more aggressive about saying, We think this is the way to go with content. It seemed to me to be very almost, they feel that they are very smart people, they are very confident in their opinions and attitudes, they are not willing to [look at] other points of view. Like, we know what’s right.

At Fox, there’s a broader design—they know what they’re doing; they have a strong conservative bent, but they want people to say what they want [to say]. Then there’s the opportunity to rebut, and it makes for great TV. I feel lucky that they have that attitude after what happened to me at NPR. It struck me as ironic, because I would have hoped NPR would be more open; I had thought the hard right would be more intolerant.

Q: You write that NPR should not receive federal funds. Why not?

A: NPR has so many fans; it’s an amazingly important journalistic platform. They would get support from advertising and foundations. There’s no question NPR could be self-sufficient. But the primary point is that NPR journalists should not be in a position of having liberals say, “We support NPR,” while conservatives say, “Why is NPR being treated in a favorable way?” That’s a hornet’s nest of conflicts and appearances of conflicts for NPR journalists. It puts them in the role of a liberal network. Whatever journalism NPR wants to do, let them, but it shouldn’t be perceived as one arm of the political spectrum.

NPR gets single-digit funding [within its overall budget] from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); most of the money from CPB goes to the stations. They say if they didn’t have government backing, that some small stations in rural areas would have to close…but that’s it. There’s a disproportionate cost to NPR in accepting federal money.

Q: Do you think the money eventually will be cut off?

A: It doesn’t seem likely.

Q: In your book Enough, you focus on a speech Bill Cosby gave in 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. What about that speech inspired you to write a book on the same themes?

A: It was the reaction to his comments that prompted me to write the book. Bill Cosby has so much credibility in the United States, and inside the black community. He’s given so much time and money to black causes, promoted the black family, black education. He’s been a terrific positive role model. On the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, he says there are serious issues to consider—and he was demonized for airing dirty laundry. He was speaking honestly about problems. As a journalist, I wanted to see if he was actually correct. Had he said something that was intended to undermine the black community? I thought it was important to break it down: the black family, education, antipoverty programs. It was a New York Times bestseller, and to this day the book gets attention from the left and the right. I am very pleased with it.

Q: You have written a biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall, titled Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. Why did you decide to write about Marshall, and what surprised you most as you researched the book?

A: I decided to write the book after I did a Washington Post magazine piece [about Marshall]. To this day, I think it’s the longest article they ever ran. We did six months of interviews in his chambers. There was more material than was necessary [for the article]. I wanted to do a book; he had not cooperated with any other writers.

Q: Did he cooperate with the biography?

A: He spoke to me on the phone; he tried to help me [get material from] the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His wife was very suspicious of the book; she didn’t want any part of it, and she warned him away from it. Technically, he didn’t [cooperate].

On a larger scale, I did the book because I think Marshall was one of the central architects of race relations in this country. He’s often overlooked, because Supreme Court justices in black robes, part of the establishment, don’t fit into the revolutionary model of civil rights activists. People focus on Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, and do not stop and think about who changed the laws—Thurgood Marshall.

One of the surprises was his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. In a contemporary context, you would think the two would hate each other, they were polar opposites—but in fact they found areas in which they could work [together]. Hoover invited Marshall to a birthday party.

Also, his relationship with King—at one point, he phoned King to say, “You’re being taped and watched.” King said, I don’t care about that.

On a bigger level, what surprised me was Marshall’s larger view of American society. Historically, I understand him as a figure that comes out of Maryland, middle ground in the Civil War era, him as a child growing up in a place where he had experience with whites, forms him into an integrationist. He believes in the law. The double consciousness that DuBois writes about, being Americans and black Americans—Marshall was saying that we are the greatest patriots; despite what happened, we believe in the Constitution, in equal rights. On a large scale, this was one of the gifts to American society. Yes, we had the Civil War, but post-Civil War it could have devolved into violence. We managed to navigate it to have a demographically stable country, one that continues to grow, and race relations are on a positive trajectory.

Q: You wrote the 1987 book Eyes on the Prize that accompanied the PBS series on the civil rights movement. How did this project come about?

A: Henry Hampton, the creator of Eyes on the Prize, was a businessman in Boston….He wanted to make documentaries, and he was taken with the power of the civil rights drama….He went to ABC and others with the idea [of a civil rights documentary]; they had an idea of making something like Roots. But he wanted to actually tell the story with the power attached to its reality. He was short on money, and he looked at the Vietnam documentary [that had aired on PBS], and Stanley Karnow’s [accompanying] book on Vietnam was a big success, so he thought of having a book as part of the project. He contacted an agent who found me at the Post.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Yes, I am—it’s a book about the people who helped create 21st century America: How did we change over time, especially over the second half of 20th century America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also write a column for The Hill newspaper, and for

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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