NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller has resigned following the latest controversy to dog one of our three or four most vital news organizations. Yesterday we learned that NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller — no relation — was secretly recorded by right-wing prankster James O’Keefe. Among other things, Ron Schiller was heard trashing the Tea Party and generally coming off as a liberal.
I’m writing this up for the Guardian later today, and at the moment we don’t know much. My snap reaction, though, is good riddance. NPR handled the long-overdue departure of Juan Williams ineptly and over the wrong issue. Vivian Schiller threw her top news executive Ellen Weiss, over the side of the boat when it was all over.
Then, yesterday, Vivian Schiller publicly humiliated Ron Schiller despite O’Keefe’s flagrant history of doctoring videos of his other targets — principally ACORN.
My fear, though, is that NPR got rid of Vivian Schiller because she didn’t pander to the right hard enough at a time when its funding is in jeopardy. We’ll see.
After NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller said Juan Williams should keep his feelings about Muslims between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist,” I thought perhaps it was Schiller who ought to schedule some couch time. She apologized, and today she’s in damage-control mode.
NPR media reporter David Folkenflik did something very smart (which I learned about through Jack Shafer’s Twitter feed): he refused to attend an off-the-record staff meeting about Williams’ firing following offensive comments he made on Fox News. Instead, Folkenflik pieced together what happened by interviewing some of those who did attend. Based on Folkenflik’s tweets, Schiller seems to have hit the right notes. (I’m running them in chronological order rather than the usual reverse chrono:
The all-staff meeting was off the record, so I did not attend. However, staffers who did told me the following:
Schiller said decision to give Wms notice was not because of slip of the tongue, but latest in a series of violations of NPR ethics policy
Schiller said it had been raised several times but that he continued to inject personal opinon in his analysis in settings outside NPR.
Schiller said at some point, you have to draw the line. (more)
Though she called it the right decision, Schiller also said NPR did not handle Wms’ ouster well. She promised staffers a “full post-mortem.”
Schiller also said she was ambushed leaving her home by a two-person camera crew identifying itself as being from Fox News.
Over and out.
I feel a little better about this than I did yesterday. Schiller did the right thing for the wrong reason at the wrong time. What’s important is that she knows she blew the handling of it. No way she can undo it — not after Fox News rewarded Williams with a three-year, $2 million deal. But at least she seems determined to make the best of a bad situation. It sounds like she’s adopted the views of NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who writes that “a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.”
Here is our discussion of the Williams matter on tonight’s “Beat the Press.” I’m also quoted in a Christian Science Monitor story on the hazards of straddling the reporter/analyst/commentator divide.
Just a quick observation about NPR’s decision to terminate Juan Williams after he expressed his fear of Muslims on airplanes during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
To me, Williams was clearly a victim of Rick Sanchez syndrome. That is, Williams was not an asset to NPR, and management was probably happy to stumble upon an excuse to get rid of him. Williams is a supremely uninteresting occasional commentator who will not be missed. What he said was offensive, but if he were a star he’d have been let off with a suspension and an apology.
I’ll add that many people hold the views that Williams expressed. That’s not an excuse. But if NPR hadn’t acted so precipitously, and if Williams were up to the task, Williams might have helped lead a national conversation on the Islamophobia that now pervades this country.
NPR made a mistake in firing Williams, but he should have quietly been let go a long time ago.