Williams, whose books include the acclaimed history Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, told O'Reilly, "Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Within days, numerous pundits and special-interest groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and Media Matters, criticized Williams as racist and as endorsing racial profiling.
What burns Williams, who studied philosophy at Haverford College and worked for 24 years as a reporter and columnist at the Washington Post, is that his critics based their conclusions on only a portion of what he said on Fox News. "It's incredible to me that anybody who took the time to just listen could conclude I was being racist," he says.
"We don't want, in America, people to have their rights violated," he told O'Reilly, "to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."
Things got worse when on Oct. 20, just two days after Williams' comment, NPR's senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, "called me out of the blue to fire me," says Williams.
He says he was incensed that after 11 years at the network, NPR management didn't speak to him in person or give him a chance to respond to the allegation that he had violated NPR's ethics code by airing his personal feelings.
"I felt like they had tried to ruin my career and to ruin my reputation as a person," Williams says by phone from his home in Washington, D.C. "All of a sudden, I was a despicable character."
The madness, Williams says, continued a day later when NPR's then president and chief executive, Vivian Schiller, publicly stated that Williams' feelings about Muslims should be between him and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." (She later apologized.)
Both Weiss and Schiller, who admitted the situation was handled badly, have since resigned.
This mini media saga is recounted in detail in the first chapter of Muzzled, and it anchors the book's contention that both the left and the right are stifling free and open debate in America with their rigid definition of what counts as politically correct speech.
"The book is a clarion call for people to stop and really understand that if we can't have an honest debate in America, then we don't allow good ideas to rise and we don't get rid of bad ideas and we can never solve issues like immigration, or even the budget war we are having," Williams says.
Muzzled tests out this thesis with chapters devoted to wedge issues including tax cuts, entitlements, health care, and abortion.
The nation, Williams passionately declares, has become "a locked environment where people on the left and people on the right are looking to embarrass people on the other side." We'd rather prejudge each other according to our party affiliation than give each other a fair hearing, says Williams.
"Someone is making a nuanced observation and you take a portion of it and you use it to make them sound un-American or unpatriotic," he adds.
This leads to intense, never-ending feuds among politicians and pundits, while most regular Americans "just bite their tongues . . . [because] they don't want to be labeled a crazy right winger or radical leftist."
So what is Williams himself? Leftist? Conservative? He's coy. He points out that many liberals called him a conservative when he published his 2006 book, Enough, in which he praised Bill Cosby, who had chastised black leaders for undermining family unity and education in the black community.
Yet, as O'Reilly consistently does, many Republicans view Williams as a liberal.
Williams describes himself as "the kind of person who wants reconciliation."
Yet some critics have said he undermines his fine argument - that we desperately need rational argument in American politics - by launching what seems to be a hyperbolic, unmeasured attack on NPR.
Williams sets himself up as an example of a man wronged for holding an unpopular opinion: "My firing is evidence, is proof, that just having an honest conversation can cost you your job."
He also admits that he had experienced friction with his NPR bosses for at least two years before he was fired, not over his politics but over NPR's policy that he consult his bosses before writing for other publications or appearing on other programs.
They made an exception for Fox News because Williams had been hired by the cable network three years before he joined NPR.
By the time he was fired in October, Williams' role at NPR had shrunk radically to only four appearances a month.
Former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard says she finds it "disingenuous . . . that he presents himself as if he was a full-time employee" who was fired simply for what he said on Fox News.
Williams has drawn fire for his harsh indictment of what he views as NPR's "clear liberal bias," especially when it comes to conservative African Americans.
"[NPR] only counts the views of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as representing African Americans," Williams says. "But black ministers, conservative black businessmen, Barack Obama for that matter, are seen as aberrant." African American conservatives, Williams says, are treated by NPR as "Uncle Toms."
While admitting that Fox News has a special appeal to conservatives, Williams seems unwilling to admit the network may have a conservative bent.
"If you are talking about [Fox News talk-show host] Sean Hannity, sure, he flies his conservative credentials high," says Williams. "But the news coverage gives a fair hearing to both sides. . . . They are the number one news channel in the country for a good reason."
Contact Inquirer staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or email@example.com.