WASHINGTON – Conservatives and some liberals say NPR went too far in axing a longtime news analyst for saying he gets nervous on planes when he sees people in Muslim dress, and at least one U.S. senator said he would start the ball rolling in cutting federal funding to the network.
Muslim groups were outraged, saying that Juan Williams' remarks Monday on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" endorsed the idea that all Muslims should be viewed with suspicion. Opinions Williams expressed on shows by his other employer, Fox News, over the years had already strained his relationship with NPR to the point that the public radio network asked him to stop using its name when he appeared on O'Reilly's show.
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said Thursday about the decision that controversial opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts. Still, NPR was soundly criticized for axing Williams' contract for giving his feeling in an interview where he also said it is important to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists.
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country," Williams said. "But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, 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."
Speaking Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Williams said he was simply saying how he feels at a moment like that.
"It's a feeling. And I don't say 'I'm not getting on the plane,'" Williams said. "I don't say 'you must go through additional security.' I don't say 'I want to discriminate against these people.' No such thing occurs. So, to me it was admitting that I have this notion, that I have this feeling in the immediate moment."
In response to the firing, South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint planned to introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR, his spokesman Wesley Denton confirmed Thursday night. Denton said the senator would expand upon his proposal in a statement on Friday.
Federal grants provide less than 2 percent — or $3.3 million — of NPR's $166 million annual budget. It is funded primarily by its affiliates, corporate sponsors and major donors. Federal funding of public media has long been questioned by some in Congress.
Schiller said Thursday that Williams had veered from journalistic ethics several times before Monday's comments.
Schiller said whatever feelings Williams has about Muslims should be between him and "his psychiatrist or his publicist — take your pick." In a post later on NPR's website — where comments were heavily against Williams' firing — she apologized for making the "thoughtless" psychiatrist remark.
On ABC, Williams said Schiller made a personal attack against him because she had a weak argument to justify his firing.
"I think it's a very weak case," he said Friday. "And so ultimately I think what she had to do then is to make it an ad hominem or personal attack."
On his Thursday broadcast, O'Reilly blasted NPR for what he called "a disgraceful decision" and called on Schiller to resign.
"Ms. Schiller is a pinhead," said O'Reilly.
NPR had no comment about his remarks, said spokeswoman Anna Christopher.
Williams appeared shaken during his appearance on the show, and when shown Schiller's videotaped comments about him talking to a psychiatrist, asked incredulously: "Now I'm mentally unstable?"
He and O'Reilly both said they believed Williams was fired from NPR because of his association with Fox. The network announced it had re-signed Williams, who has been with Fox since 1997, to a multiyear deal that will give him an expanded role — and that Williams will host O'Reilly's show on Friday.
"You know what? I didn't fit into their box," Williams said of NPR.
In a memo to her staff and affiliate stations, Schiller said the comments violated NPR's code of ethics, which says journalists should not participate in media "that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."
Williams stood by his remarks Thursday. He told Fox News his statement was not bigoted, as he said NPR news executive Ellen Weiss implied Wednesday when she fired him by phone.
"I said, 'You mean I don't even get the chance to come in and we do this eyeball-to-eyeball, person-to-person, have a conversation? I've been there more than 10 years,'" Williams said. He said Weiss responded that "there's nothing you can say that would change my mind."
Williams made the comments at issue while discussing whether O'Reilly was wrong to have said "Muslims killed us on 9/11" during an appearance last week on ABC's "The View." O'Reilly's comment prompted co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk off the set, but Goldberg defended Williams on Thursday.
"The point he was trying to say is, 'I get nervous,' and that's OK," Goldberg said. "Firing him for saying that, I think, is kind of ridiculous."
Republicans denounced NPR's decision. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News that Congress should investigate NPR for censorship and consider cutting off its public funding.
"Juan Williams: Going Rogue," former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Thursday in a Twitter message. "NPR should receive NO fed tax dollars if it operates as intolerant, private radio. Mr. President, what say you?"
In June, Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn introduced legislation to cut funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2012. It is in committee. The corporation is the primary channel for federal funds distributed to public media including NPR.
Before Williams was fired, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said a news organization would not tolerate such commentary from a journalist about other racial, ethnic or religious minority groups. Early this month, CNN fired anchor Rick Sanchez for comments that included questioning whether Jews should be considered a minority.
"NPR should address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats," CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said.
Society of Professional Journalists President Hagit Limor said Thursday that although the group supports Williams' right to free speech, "Based on our code of ethics, which advises avoiding stereotyping for any reason ... we understand the rationale that may be behind NPR's decision."
Williams was a longtime reporter, columnist and editorial writer at The Washington Post. He has written extensively on the civil rights movement, including a book on the African-American religious experience and a biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice.
Associated Press Writers Greg Bluestein in Atlanta, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Tom Foreman Jr. in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.