Opinion: Lessons learned

So, in the year since being labeled a bigot, a bad journalist and fired from NPR, what have I learned?

The biggest lesson for me has come from the endless stream of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, who tell me they can’t believe the constant pressure in politics these days to keep quiet, shut up and bite their tongue for fear of being called a bigot, a crazy right-winger or a socialist lefty.

People are fed up with pledges that enforce far right or far left orthodoxy and being told they lack a spine when they listen to the other side of an argument or call for a political compromise to reach a solution.

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The shrill, vapid rhetorical exchanges that pass for honest debate these days go back to the roots of what got me fired.

Few people seemed to have noticed that last month, without the sky falling down, the Park 51 Islamic Community Center opened for business in lower Manhattan. A year ago in the middle of screaming headlines over the location of the mosque near Ground Zero, my Fox debating partner Bill O’Reilly made the point that “Muslims had killed us on 9/11.” That created a controversy even as he explained he was talking about radical Muslims. Later, he asked me if he was wrong to speak so directly.

I told him I was not going to play politically correct games. He is right in saying the people who attacked the United States that day are Muslims. They even cited their faith as justification for their terrorism. Then I admitted that since the 9/11 attacks that I get nervous when I see people dressed in Muslim garb getting on an airplane.

After acknowledging the truth of the legitimate link between radical Islam and terrorism, I told Bill that even as we speak directly we have to keep in mind that America is a country founded on the ideal of religious liberty. We can’t stereotype any group on the basis of the behavior of extremists among them. We don’t indict all Christians because of Timothy McVeigh.

Two days later, Ellen Weiss, the vice president for news at NPR, called me to tell me that my heartfelt admission in the course of an honest debate was offensive religious bigotry that violated NPR’s standards of journalism and I was fired.

The next day, Vivian Schiller, the president and CEO of NPR, publicly said I should keep my thoughts on the topic between me and my “psychiatrist or publicist.” At that point, the story was much bigger than NPR’s decision to fire me.

People saw the effort to silence and demonize me as a stand-in for efforts to shut down honest political debate in America on difficult subjects from terrorism to immigration and budget fights. Liberals and conservatives, from Jon Stewart to Sarah Palin, criticized NPR.

But in the year since I was fired the political pressure on Americans to be politically correct, to never stray from the party line, and avoid saying anything that someone may call offensive continues to polarize the country.

Americans across all political, social and racial lines tell me they resent this political straitjacket. They know that if they speak their mind, admit their fears, hopes, feelings, they risk being told they are not a good Republican or not a good Democrat. They fear being told they are not a good Christian for their views on abortion; not a good Jew for their views on Israel; not a good black man if they question President Obama; not a good Muslim if they condemn Islamic terrorism without any qualification. At every turn, people fear being told they are lacking in principle for simply avoiding political boxes and opening themselves to listen to the other side of an issue and engage in honest debate.

In late July, my book “Muzzled: the Assault on Honest Debate” was published and soon hit the New York Times’ best-seller list. It hit a chord because every day’s headlines bring fresh new examples of the problems I wrote about – enough to fill 10 more books.

In August, the lack of honest debate over the need to raise the debt ceiling pushed the nation to the brink of economic disaster. Republicans’ refusal to discuss any compromise, particularly tax hikes on the super rich in exchange for higher rates of spending cuts, led the nation’s credit rating to be downgraded. That makes it harder to not only reduce the debt but also harder to end the recession.

Polls done after those weeks of polarized political fighting showed Americans fed up with the failure of both parties to negotiate and put the best interests of the nation above politically correct posturing.

Public approval of Congress plunged after that dysfunctional episode and is now at historic lows. Gallup shows 81 percent disapprove of Congress while just 13 percent approve.

A New York Times/CBS poll found more than four out of five people surveyed said the debt-ceiling debate was more about gaining political advantage than about doing what is best for the country. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said the debate had harmed the image of the United States around the world. Standard and Poor’s cited the “political brinksmanship” over the debt ceiling as their main reasons for downgrading the U.S. credit rating. 

The result is a crisis of political leadership caused by disgust with the lack of honest debate. Three-quarters of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. The root of this disapproval is that Americans feel their leaders don’t speak honestly about the big issues: how to reduce the debt, how to boost employment, how to reform schools, how to fix the broken immigration system and more.

People ask me if I would ever consider going back to NPR. The answer is probably not.

I remain a huge fan of the NPR audience and the NPR local stations. I am not yet convinced that the NPR national operation in Washington has been able to rid itself of the elite liberal orthodoxy that made me into their whipping boy. I still hear from NPR officials that the problem with my firing was simply the way it was done. That is a sad case of denial. Yes, I was treated badly but the key point is that there was no basis for firing me in the first place. I violated no journalistic standard by honestly expressing my feeling.

NPR recently hired Gary Knell, the longtime CEO of Sesame Street, as its new president and CEO of NPR. Knell has vowed to “depoliticize” NPR and to return NPR to solid journalism rather than “promoting one political agenda or another.” We will see.

Being fired, and called a bigot by your employer is awful. It still stings. Yet, if my experience advances the call for honest debate in America, then I am glad it happened.