NEW YORK—As NPR weathered a storm of criticism Thursday for its decision to fire news analyst Juan Williams for his comments about Muslims, Fox News moved aggressively to turn the controversy to its advantage by signing Williams to an expanded role at the cable news network.
Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes handed Williams a new three-year contract Thursday morning, in a deal that amounts to nearly $2 million, a considerable bump up from his previous salary, the Tribune Washington Bureau has learned. The Fox News contributor will now appear exclusively and more frequently on the cable news network and have a regular column on FoxNews.com.
Meanwhile, conservative leaders lambasted NPR for firing Williams and called for cutting public funding for the media organization. By midafternoon Thursday, more than 4,900 comments had been posted on NPR.org, including many from people who said the media organization was bowing to political correctness and unfairly punishing Williams for expressing his personal opinions.
"In one arrogant move the NPR exposed itself for the leftist thought police they really are," read one typical post. "After this November elections I hope one of the first things the new Congress does is to defund this poor excuse for public radio."
The controversy kicked off Monday night when Williams, a Fox News contributor, made an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor." In a conversation with host Bill O'Reilly about how fear of terrorism affects perceptions of Muslims, Williams noted that he harbored some anxieties, even as an author of books about the civil rights movement.
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot .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're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous," Williams said.
He also noted that it was not fair to cast all Muslims as extremists.
On Wednesday, NPR told Williams it was terminating his contract, saying his remarks "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
The abrupt break came after years in which Williams' role at Fox News caused internal tension at the public radio organization. Many NPR listeners registered complaints about comments he made on the cable news channel, particularly remarks last year in which he described First Lady Michelle Obama as having "this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going" and saying she could become "an albatross."
In response, NPR executives asked Williams to request Fox News not identify him as an NPR analyst when he appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor."
Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's senior vice president for communications, said in an interview that Williams' comments violated internal ethics policies that prohibit NPR journalists from going on other media and expressing "views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist." The guidelines also prohibit NPR journalists from participating in programs "that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."
Rehm said Williams had been warned several times in the past about making personal comments that violated the policy.
"This wasn't the first time where we felt Juan crossed the line in terms of what's permitted for NPR analysts and journalists as a whole," she said. "We felt we really didn't have an alternative. And it was not without regret, and it was not a decision that was made lightly by any means. We do appreciate the work he has done."
Williams told Fox News on Thursday that he was let go over the phone and taken aback that he wasn't given a chance to defend himself.
"It's not a bigoted statement," he told Fox News in an interview the cable news network ran throughout the day. "In fact, in the course of this conversation with Bill O'Reilly, I said we have an obligation as Americans to be careful to protect the constitutional rights of everyone in our country and to make sure that we don't have any outbreak of bigotry. But that there's a reality. You cannot ignore what happened on 9/11, and you cannot ignore the connection to Islamic radicalism, and you can't ignore the fact of what has even recently been said in court with regard to this is the first drop of blood in a Muslim war in America."
Fox News made the most of the incident, rerunning a package about the controversy throughout the day. Williams was scheduled to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor" Thursday night to further address the issue and will guest host the program Friday.
In the meantime, NPR was slammed by conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who tweeted, "NPR defends 1st Amendment Right, but will fire u if u exercise it. Juan Williams: u got taste of Left's hypocrisy, they screwed up firing you."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who hosts a show on Fox News, said he now plans to boycott NPR and decline its interview requests.
"NPR has discredited itself as a forum for free speech and a protection of the First Amendment rights of all and has solidified itself as the purveyor of politically correct pabulum and protector of views that lean left," Huckabee wrote on his blog, adding: "It is time for the taxpayers to start making cuts to federal spending, and I encourage the new Congress to start with NPR."
NPR receives no direct federal funding for its operations, but between 1% and 3% of its $160-million budget comes from competitive grants awarded by publicly funded entities such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 2009, NPR has received $8 million in competitive grants from the CPB for technology development and journalism initiatives. It also received a one-time grant of $78 million between 2007 and 2009 to upgrade satellite technology.
Local NPR stations receive $90 million in annual appropriations from the CPB that amount to about 10% of their revenue, on average.
Rehm said it was inappropriate for politicians to interject the issue of federal funding into an editorial decision, adding that she hoped the controversy would not affect financial support for public radio. "Stations are in fund-raising season, so it is unfortunate that this occurred at this time," she said.
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