Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate

In a moment of candor during a 2010 appearance on Fox News, political commentator and columnist Juan Williams revealed the nervousness he feels when flying commercially alongside passengers dressed in what he calls “traditional Muslim garb.”  NPR executives recognized that his words, if they were cleanly sliced from the context in which they were spoken, could be used to portray him as a bigot – a firing offense in the eyes of those who already wanted to rid the liberal-dominated network of an employee who did not automatically follow the company line there.  So, in one of the most poorly handled dismissals of a public figure in recent memory, they fired him.

This is the jumping off point for Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, in which Williams challenges the tendency of both those on the right and on the left to stifle an honest exchange of ideas with those on the other side of any given issue.  He contends that this “you’re either with us or against us” attitude makes it near impossible for anyone to solve the problems America faces today.  Williams gets his side of the NPR story out of the way in the book’s first chapter, “I Said What I Meant,” before broadening his argument against the political correctness and partisan politics that now so completely dominate the American political system.

There are also chapters in Muzzled on the aftermath of 9/11, tax cuts vs. entitlements, immigration, abortion, political provocateurs, and free speech, in which Williams tackles in detail each of these hot button issues.  The broad message of the book is that Americans are being very poorly served by news outlets that are as partisan and biased as the politicians they cover on our behalf – that there is no place for “the honest middle” to turn for honest discussion. 

Juan Williams at Texas Book Festival, October 2011
There is little doubt that all the shouting and slanted news presentations available to the viewing public on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week, do little but reinforce already existing biases on both sides while increasing the overall anxiety and gloom felt by the average American – including the shrinking “honest middle.”  As Williams puts it:

            To my mind, the only way to confront these fears is to face them head-on.  That means talking to one another.  It means telling one another how we feel, including those we don’t see eye to eye with.  We have to acknowledge that none of us knows everything.  We have to accommodate ourselves to new circumstances and facts and seek peace, compromise, and progress.  I am not saying that any of us should throw principle out the window.  But my career as a professional reporter, columnist, and commentator has taught me that no one has a monopoly on the answers.

Let’s hope it happens before it is too late.  Or, as Williams contends, do we already have the media and political class we “deserve” because of how we continue to reward the media with high viewer ratings, and insist on returning the same failed politicians to office election after election?

Rated at: 4.0

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