The Revenge of Juan Williams  | American Journalism Review
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The Revenge of Juan Williams   

After a series of major embarrassments at NPR, CEO Vivian Schiller walks the plank. Posted: Wed, March 9, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Call it Juan Williams' revenge.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller is gone, following a series of debacles in public radioland that began when Schiller bounced commentator Williams last October.

The ouster of the semi-conservative Williams for comments he made in an appearance on his other employer, Fox News Channel, gave new life to a major effort pushed by the right to end federal financing of public broadcasting. This was the last thing NPR needed. While it receives a small percentage of its money from the feds, is gets a great deal from its affiliates, which enjoy plenty of federal largesse.

The proximate cause of Schiller's "resignation" today -- NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik says she was pushed -- was the latest embarrassment, in which an NPR fundraiser was caught in a right-wing sting operation saying impolitic things about the Tea Party and the Republicans, and questioning whether NPR needs federal dollars.

Schiller moved quickly to denounce the remarks by fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) and speed up his planned departure. But the damage had been done.

The steady stream of gaffes at NPR is particularly unfortunate because, in a challenging landscape in which many traditional news organizations have been much diminished, it has clung stubbornly to its commitment to serious news. For example, as Jodi Enda reported in her AJR piece on foreign reporting last December, while the overall number of overseas correspondents at mainstream news organizations has plummeted, NPR's contingent has grown.

The endgame for Schiller began when Williams, appearing on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," noted that he got "nervous" when he saw people in "Muslim garb" when he was flying. NPR had wearied of Williams, and it used his remarks as a pretext for kicking him to the curb.

No one disputed NPR's right to end the relationship. But the organization handled the situation about as badly as it could.

Williams was dismissed quickly by then-NPR Vice President for News Ellen Weiss -- over the phone, no less. No hearing, no chance for Williams to tell his side of the story. His comments were unfortunate -- they amounted to the kind of stereotyping Williams would no doubt deplore in other circumstances -- but they hardly seemed to merit the death penalty.

Then Schiller made a bad situation worse -- and raised questions about her own judgment -- when she said at the Atlanta Press Club that Williams should keep his feelings about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist."

The episode was red meat for the right, which long has pilloried NPR as a bastion of liberalism and political correctness. It breathed new life into the move to turn off the federal spigot. And it was an entirely unforced error.

After a review of the imbroglio by a law firm, the NPR board concluded on January 6 that Williams' firing was legal, but it also announced plans for a new code of ethics and a review of personnel policies. While Schiller did not get a bonus for 2010, the board expressed confidence in her leadership. The only collateral damage, aside from that done to NPR's reputation, was Weiss, who left NPR after 29 years at the radio network.

Two days later, NPR was humbled yet again. It reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot at a Tucson shopping center. Problem was, she hadn't. It turned out NPR was relying on sources without firsthand information and that the story was aired without being run by senior editors.

But it was the misadventures of Schiller the Other that meant "game over" for CEO Schiller. Ron Schiller, then-vice president of the NPR Foundation at the time, fell victim to a ploy by conservative stingmeister James O'Keefe. In a videotaped conversation with two men posing as members of the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted to give $5 million to NPR, Schiller said of the Tea Party, "It's not just Islamophobic, but really xenophobic. Basically, they believe in white, middle America, gun-toting it's pretty scary. They're seriously racist, racist people." As for the effort to end government support for public broadcasting, he said, "it is very clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding."

Slate media critic Jack Shafer, everyone's favorite contrarian, found it hard to get worked up about the latest NPR scandal. Rich people have lots of weird ideas, he argued, and fundraisers often have to nod their heads politely if they want to seal the deal.

But timing is everything. In the current context, this is just what NPR didn't need: more ammunition for the "NPR is a bunch of commies" crowd. And as NPR battles furiously for ongoing federal support, this was hardly the view you want put out there by your money guy.

Soon after the video surfaced, both Schillers were gone.

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