Juan Williams

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A conversation with the NPR and Fox News analyst about Senator Barack Obama�s presidential candidacy and the difference between NPR and Fox News.

Ted Simons:
NPR and fox news analyst Juan Williams was in the Valley recently. He was a speaker at ASU's Center for Community Development and Civil Rights. The group held its fourth civil rights forum on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Larry Lemmons spoke with Mr. Williams at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Larry Lemmons:
Mr. Williams, I'd like to begin with an article in the "Wall Street Journal" today, Obama and King. 40 years after Martin Luther King has been assassinated, and now we have an African-American man who could very well become the next President of the United States. Clearly that says a lot about how America has changed. How would you characterize it?

Juan Williams:
There's no question, if Dr. King was alive 40 years later and saw the reality of Barack Obama, not just a black man but a guy named Barack Obama, who's father was an immigrant and who's mother is white -- he'd say that's unbelievable that he could be the leading contender for his party's nomination. In so many ways there's something that binds the two of them in the American mind when it comes to race. Which is that Dr. King and Barack Obama both represent the idea of rising above race, of unity, of the so-called "Promised Land" or the dream in king's language, that people would come together and appeal, not on the basis of racial division or racial animosity, but appeal on the basis of common identity and common American spirit. And he would say, you know what, race is a secondary consideration, not the primary reason I'm supporting or opposing somebody. And I'm listening to them and I see them as a truth-teller to all involved. Truth, in the inspiring sense. So that's what I see as somehow binding Dr. King and Barack Obama in the American mind.

Larry Lemmons:
Of course you said in your article that on the one hand, Obama appeals to young white voters with his idealism. In the same way that Dr. King would have. But on the other hand, in order to get the black vote, you say that he has had to do things that weren't necessarily within Dr. King's canon of behavior. Could you talk about that?

Juan Williams:
Once that white voters demonstrated they were willing to vote for a black man, Iowa Barack Obama wins, comes in a close second in New Hampshire, and then suddenly the attention shifts to South Carolina where about half of the Democratic electorate is made up of African Americans. And suddenly you saw an interesting thing take place; Barack Obama had to argue, with other black people, about the idea that he was black enough. If you'll recall, initially there were people who said, you're not black enough, you're half white and you come from this immigrant experience of your father and lived in Indonesia and Hawaii, you have this Ivy League education. So he had to argue he was black enough. Then secondly, he had to argue that he was someone whose time had come, that black people shouldn't be waiting for someone down the way to achieve this ultimate political power of a successful presidential campaign. And I might add, they also had to -- I'm talking here about Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and the likes of Oprah Winfrey, also had to reassure black people that he was not going to be assassinated. He's not just going to be another leading black American figure who's just going to be killed by the white races. What this generated was tremendous sense of pride in Barack Obama among black people. He's been getting 80-plus percent of the black vote nationwide. But it really at that point turns, and he becomes the black candidate. He becomes representative of black aspirations to have one of the black people finally hold this highest top political office, as opposed to the way whites view Barack Obama, which is the color of his skin is secondary. It's just coincidental to the fact that we find him someone who represents our highest ideals. And we take pride in the idea that we don't view him as a black guy. We view him as someone who is capable, well educated, former editor of the Harvard Law Review, and someone who's going to help us get past all of the racial baggage of the past. On the one hand, he's getting past all the racial baggage of the past with the white voters, but with black voters he's focusing on his racial identity in order to win their solidarity.

Larry Lemmons:
You, of course, work for NPR and you work for Fox. People might think of NPR and PBS also as being left of center, and they might think of Fox as being right of center. You worked for both. Can you give me an idea of what it's like to work with both, and how are they different?

Juan Williams:
Well, I can tell you, for Fox, there's no question, it's a conservative cable network. I think that Fox was created to somehow give voice and presence to conservative political points of view. On many of the shows that I appear you'll have a conservative host in the likes of Bill O'Reilly, and then they'll have conservative guests, and then they'll have me there almost as a foil, as another voice, as another perspective. And I always joke that I get the worst seating and the worst lighting and the last question. But that's their market. NPR is seeking to have a broader market, but NPR has a history. The history is that it started as a bunch of college stations, young people, started in the '70s, in the aftermath of the Watergate hearings, was seen as coming from the left side of the political spectrum, representing that kind of academic free spirit that existed on the campuses. Or higher-income people who had a high level of education, especially in the precincts of Manhattan and Boston, people who were seen as the intellectual elite in the society. So NPR has this image of being left wing. But in fact, I think NPR represents an oasis in terms of the landscape of the moment. NPR is really trying to be a reliable source of news, no matter what your political stripe.

Larry Lemmons:
Is that a good thing or a bad thing that these broadcast outlets have become politicized?

Juan Williams:
I don't think it's a good thing. But remember, I'm 53 years old. And I grew up absolutely enamored of the Walter Cronkites of the world, the Huntley Brinkley Report. I think if you have an authoritative, credible journalist, that's a very high -- it's almost like a priesthood to me. It's something that I think is important. We are a very diverse country. And I'm not just talking in terms of racial diversity; I'm talking in terms of geographic diversity, ethnic diversity, levels of education, experience, the amount of foreign travel, very diverse. It's important that we have credible sources of information that people can view as trustworthy. And I think we have fewer and fewer of those today. Let me just tell you this, sometimes I ask people, I say where do you get your news and information from. Overwhelmingly people say to me, well, I listen to John Stewart or I tune in to Steven Colbert or Oberman or O'Riley or Jay Leno or Letterman or Oprah. And they go, okay, yeah, and my friend, he tells me stuff, or sometimes I catch the headlines in the car.
And I'm thinking, wait a minute, they are not listening or reading one journalist, one person who's committed to delivering them the straight story. They haven't mentioned one such source of information yet. Yet, that's the reality. We have so much, many more sources of information, internet, radio, TV, more stations on cable, Universe 500 plus. Yet the idea of impartial, absolutely credible journalism has become more and more of a limited and precious resource.

Larry Lemmons:
Juan Williams, thanks very much for talking to "Horizon."

Juan Williams:
Larry, my pleasure. Nice to be with you.

Juan Williams, NPR;

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