After National Public Radio fired commentator Juan Williams on Oct. 20, for saying on a television program that he felt unnerved by Muslims on airplanes, a number of persistent questions resurfaced about public discourse in a post-9/11 world, and the line between civility and censorship.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, has another question for NPR: Does the network have one standard for discussing Muslims, and another for talking about Catholics? He believes it does - but NPR has stood by its record, saying that Donohue's examples don't add up.
On Oct. 26, Donohue jumped into the debate over Williams' firing, wondering why “no one has been terminated by NPR” for what he called “anti-Catholic fare.” He cited a local affiliate's program that mocked the Eucharist, a nationally aired performance of Tom Lehrer's “Vatican Rag” (also satirizing the sacrament), and discussions of whether “too many Catholics” were on the Supreme Court.
“As I've documented, there are many instances where National Public Radio has acted in the most offensive way to Roman Catholics,” Donohue told CNA. Those instances, he alleged, were much worse than what Williams had been fired for saying about Muslims. Donohue called the remark “fairly innocuous,” saying it had “probably been made by so many Americans over a cup of coffee.”
Donohue pointed out that a mockery of the Eucharist, “the heart and soul of our religion,” was particularly egregious. Likewise, he doubted that any speculation about “too many” Supreme Court justices of another religion - such as Judaism - would have been allowed.
The Catholic League president clarified that he was not calling for NPR to fire anyone else in response to his concerns. Rather, he said, NPR should “begin ... thinking of Catholics as if we were Muslims.
“Because if they thought of us as Muslims, they would never offend us for the rest of our lives.”
Anna Christopher, NPR's Senior Manager for Media Relations, contacted the Catholic League on Oct. 26, telling Donohue that he was “cherry-picking” a small number of instances to present a misleading characterization of the network. Two days later, she addressed some of the league's concerns in a telephone discussion with CNA.
Christopher pointed out that NPR had “no editorial control” over the local affiliate that had aired the program parodying the Eucharist. She described the Lehrer performance from 1997 as an isolated incident, and said the song's performance from “13 or 14 years ago” had no connection to any commentator's remarks about religion and the Supreme Court in 2005.
NPR's spokeswoman also strongly denied Donohue's allegation that the network had ever applied different standards of discourse to different religions. In fact, Christopher went further, denying that there is evidence of any bias - at NPR or any other American media outlet - favoring Muslim sensitivities over those of Christians.
Christopher said that NPR's journalistic record speaks for itself and urged those who share Donohue's concerns to listen NPR's “diversity” of discussions and topics online.