Lesson Learned From Juan Williams: The Center Cannot Hold
I recall the day I met Juan Williams in the elevator. It was a couple of years ago. I was in the C-SPAN / FOX building overlooking the Capitol; we were both going down the elevator after our respective Fox appearances. We chatted. He handed me his card — NPR. He won’t remember it.
But for me, that appearance cemented my decision to abandon any aspiration to being a pundit.
For years, literally since before blogs were called blogs, I had been writing essays on public life, politics, and ethics. I really had little to say about partisan issues, and I was equally maddening to folks on the left and the right (if my hate email is to be believed). I remember once, my editor at the Christian Science Monitor begged me to divulge my party affiliation in one essay on our divisive political culture — I refused (and I think the essay is stronger for it).
Eventually, I got noticed by a new outlet that focused on conservative issues but that also was making noises about wanting “other” voices. So I began writing for Pajamas Media. Some of my stories got picked up in small ways. I got a link from Instapundit. And I began to get invitations from Fox-TV to appear.
The day I met Juan Williams, I was appearing to talk about a piece I had written decrying the onslaught of almost-porn everywhere one looks. My article was fairly meditative, and I did not breathe fire and brimstone. But my time on TV was decidedly odd. In those remote situations, you can’t see anything; you are in a dark booth with a headphone. So a disembodied voice fired questions at me, goading me into saying the world was going to Hell. It was very, very clear the role I was supposed to be playing: angry prude. I just didn’t go there, and the host seemed peeved.
I left that appearance somewhat despondent. I knew I disappointed the hosts, and I’m the kind of people-pleaser who doesn’t like to feel he’s disappointed.
But as I thought about it, I realized that the venue was not for me. My thoughts and opinions have too much “on the one hand, on the other hand” to them. Talk TV requires its personalities to be unequivocal, and to never say, “Hmmm, you may have a point.” I decided that I just wasn’t cut out for this punditry business. I realized that the people who sought out my writing weren’t looking for anger, but contemplation. That doesn’t make good TV. I have nothing against Fox (or there alterego, shout channel, MSNBC), I am just not a good personality for them.
So now, years later, I feel for Juan Williams. He is a thoughtful person, and was torn between two worlds. On the one hand he had his NPR gig, where he could steer clear of ham-handed opinion in favor of contemplation. On the other hand, he had his Fox gig, where he was paid to be the moderate in an incendiary milieu — a context where he the only way to really get a word in is to shout.
It couldn’t last and it didn’t. He said something that seemed to some to cross a line (this article isn’t about whether it did or not, so I won’t tell you what I think). NPR decided it was too much. Fox said “awesome,” and handed him a $2 million contract extension.
Again — I have nothing against Fox, or Juan Williams (whom I find thoughtful and who was very friendly to me).
I just wish there was an audience for deliberation rather than debate.