Juan Williams and I both worked at The Washington Post at the same time and have remained friendly ever since, so I was very interested in the media melodrama that unfolded last week when National Public Radio fired him.
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller accused Juan of violating the radio network’s journalistic standards after he said on Fox Television’s “The O’Reilly Factor” that he got nervous when he was in an airport and saw people in Muslim garb.
His firing caused a flurry of accusations. Muslim groups accused Juan of being prejudice – a charge he denied. Bill O’Reilly accused NPR of dumping Juan because he had become a familiar face on the conservative Fox network — thereby irritating liberals. And everyone from Sarah Palin to NPR’s ombudsman chimed in.
Meanwhile, a chilling statement by Schiller was largely overlooked.
During a press conference, she said that whatever feelings Juan had about Muslims should be kept between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist –take your pick.”
A short time later, she issued a statement on NPR’s website saying that she regretted the psychiatrist reference, which she described as “thoughtless.”
Really? Thoughtless! No kidding!
As a well-educated and high-profile CEO of a respected national radio broadcasting network, Schiller should know it’s wrong to use mental illness as a tool to demean and attack anyone. Period.
And that is what she clearly was trying to do. She was attempting to dismiss Juan by linking him to a psychiatrist and/or implying that he needed one.
Her comment was shameful.
One-in-four Americans over the age of 18 suffer from some sort of diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Current thinking is that severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, are exactly that – biological based malfunctions in the brain – or illnesses. They are not the fault of the person who becomes ill.
No one should have to defend going to a psychiatrist, anymore than they would seeing a cardiologist.
In 1972, Presidential Candidate George McGovern dropped his Vice Presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, after he admitted he had undergone electro-shock treatments to ease his depression. The same prejudice that drove Eagleton from the ticket was threaded into Schiller’s remark – that persons who have mental disorders are untrustworthy, unstable, or worse.
As the father of a son with a mental disorder, I find it bewildering that Schiller would claim to be taking the high road in firing Williams for what she felt was his bigoted comment and in the next breath denigrate more than 57 million Americans struggling with mental problems.
The first step to ending prejudice, whether it be toward Muslims or persons with mental problems, is by recognizing it.
But that admission alone does not correct bad behavior, guarantee change, or bring about absolution.
That requires both an apology and change of heart.