Juan Williams On His Comcast Connection, the iPad, and My Use of the Word “Retard”

The fired NPR commentator visits the Free Library on August 2nd

Last October, Juan Williams was fired from NPR for saying that people in Muslim garb make him nervous on airplanes. Yesterday, he released Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate, appeared on the Daily Show, and also carved out a little time to talk to me from his room at New York’s Warwick Hotel.

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Juan Williams
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One of your first jobs in the business was at the Philadelphia Bulletin. Any memorable stories?
Of course. I started there during college at Haverford. I got an internship. The first story that I ever got on the front page—in color, a big deal at the time—was on the Mummers Parade, the preparations for it. Then I covered both Rizzo brothers, the fire commissioner and the mayor. Another story I remember was whether or not they should scrub the patina off of the statue on top of City Hall. That was a big fight. Some people said, “No, that’s the beauty of the metal.” The other side said, “You have to clean it!” And every time I visit Philly now—my son works at Comcast—I see that statue and think, Hey I once wrote a story about that.

As a black man covering the Mummers in the mid-70s, were you well received by those white guys in South Philly?
Well received? I don’t know that I was particularly well received, but there was no hostility. I’ll tell you where there was hostility. Dealing with Rizzo. I was a skinny black kid with a big Afro. I joked with people that I looked like a dandelion. I don’t think they had ever dealt with a political reporter that looked like me, asking questions about policies with strong racial overtones, creating problems for them at times. Interesting that the Bulletin put me at City Hall.

On Poynter, former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard suggests that you stayed with NPR for as long as you did because the position gave you cred with the mainstream media. Does she have that right?
What? I’m stunned. Maybe she missed it, but I had a long career at the Washington Post as a Congressional correspondent, White House correspondent, I was working at CNN, co-hosting Crossfire, working at Fox… I had written best-selling books. Before I got to NPR. There are facts in the world. There is a record. 

If Terry Gross was on a television show and admitted that she crossed the street when a black man was walking towards her, should she be fired?
I remember when Jesse Jackson said he gets nervous when he sees young black men. I live in a black neighborhood in a big city. If I see some rowdy black kids coming my way, I’m looking to avoid that situation. It’s a matter of personal safety. It’s not a matter of bigotry.

I think we’re at a point where we don’t know what’s acceptable to say. I once jokingly used the word “retarded” on a local radio show and got some pretty nasty hate mail.
That’s ridiculous. These special interest groups say you shouldn’t say retarded. You should say developmentally disabled. It’s silly to make a big deal about it. It’s like language police. You’re made into a villain. It’s being done to enforce a certain speech code. It leads to resentment, anger. It leads to people thinking we’re not allowed to read books by dead white men even if they’re great books. What a waste of time. Just have an honest conversation.

Where do you get your news?
When I wake up in the morning in D.C., on my doorstep is the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post. I certainly watch Fox News. And if I’m driving to work, I listen to Bob Edwards on XM and the local all-news station. I used to listen to NPR, but it’s too emotionally grating for me.

Any thoughts of switching to e-subscriptions on an iPad?
I’m an old dog. 57. And I love newspapers. I just love them. It feels like dawn, daybreak. You get to sit down and see what’s going on. To have my bowl of oatmeal and read the newspaper is just right.