The double life of Juan Williams

by Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Whenever Jon Stewart introduces commentator Larry Wilmore for one of his bits on "The Daily Show," he's always identified as the show's "senior black correspondent."

Until Wyatt Cenac came along last year, Wilmore was the show's only black correspondent -- senior or otherwise. That's why the honorific is so funny.

Veteran news analyst Juan Williams must feel a lot like Larry Wilmore these days. As the senior black correspondent for both National Public Radio and Fox News, he has to constantly juggle his ideological commitments to meet audience expectations.

For NPR, Juan Williams is obliged to come across as a dispassionate, vaguely liberal, always reasonable conveyor of Beltway bromides -- a David Broder in black face, if you will.

But on shows like Fox News Sunday, he's expected to be a little more animated. In that relentlessly conservative environment, shouting at Bill Kristol and Brit Hume is the only way to get a point across. Even so, Mr. Williams always manages to stay to the right of panelist and fellow NPR analyst Mara Liasson.

Still, even I was tempted to send Juan Williams a bouquet of flowers after he got into a heated exchange with Sean Hannity a few days before America went to the polls and repudiated eight years of right-wing misrule.

With former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Rep. John Kasich staffing his amen corner, Mr. Hannity was practically frothing at the mouth about Barack Obama's looming victory.

Hannity: Here's my case, Juan, and this is what I really believe. Is America about to elect a man who's been dishonest to them about his radical associates, a man who's a socialist, a man who has shown terrible judgment by not distancing himself from long-term associations, a guy who ... will wave the white flag of surrender?

Williams: Now, look, Sean --

That night, Juan Williams was actually less effective than Hannity's former sidekick Alan Colmes on a typical day. Still, he did manage to get in a few digs about a notorious anti-Semite Mr. Hannity hosted on the show a few weeks earlier.

Juan Williams has never made a secret of his cultural conservatism, his dislike of hip-hop or his contempt for the Jesse Jackson leadership model.

Three years ago, Mr, Williams published "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead End-Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America," a jeremiad about black folks that makes Bill Cosby look like Huey Newton.

Even so, Mr. Williams' consistent deference to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly seems out of character for an analyst who has already shown himself willing to mix it up with powerful media patrons from time to time.

Mr. Williams' classless broadside against Michelle Obama on "The O'Reilly Factor" earlier this week is a case in point. When Bill O'Reilly asked what kind of First Lady Michelle Obama would be, Juan Williams was ready with a quip:

Williams: If you think about liabilities for President Obama that are close to him -- Joe Biden's up there -- but Michelle Obama's right there. Michelle Obama, you know ...

O'Reilly: But it's not her fault in the sense that --

Williams: She's got this Stokely Carmichael-in-designer dress thing going. If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine [Ham] suggested, her instinct is to start with this "blame America," you know. "I'm the victim." If that stuff comes out ...

O'Reilly: Yeah, it'll be death.

Williams: People will go bananas.

O'Reilly: Right.

Williams: -- and she'll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross.

As Media Matters for America pointed out, Mr. Williams also referred to the First Lady's alleged "militant anger" on Fox News on the eve of her Democratic convention speech. He didn't provide any examples then, either.

Demonizing Michelle Obama has become a cottage industry for conservatives intimidated by the strangeness of a black woman at the center of Washington's political life. Williams implies that he knows where she's really coming from, but the public hasn't figured it out yet.

Ironically, Williams probably considers his slander a form of racial tough love. I wonder if he secretly believes that knocking the first lady will earn him an invitation to the next soiree the president has with conservative commentators.

Since his Monday appearance on Fox, I've heard Juan Williams on NPR sounding reasonable again. There were no potshots at the First Lady. He even said nice things about Mr. Obama's political acumen. It was just another day in the life of America's most two-faced senior black correspondent.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey