WaPo: Editor who fired Juan Williams resigns after NPR review

January 7, 2011
In The News

By Paul FarhiWashington Post Staff WriterNPR's top news editor resigned Thursday after an internal review found that the Washington news organization mishandled the firing of news analyst Juan Williams over controversial remarks he made on a TV program in October. In an additional piece of fallout from the firing, NPR's board voted to cancel the annual bonus of NPR's chief executive, Vivian Schiller, who supported the decision to fire Williams and made some ill-timed comments about it, for which she later apologized. Both moves come as a new Republican majority takes over in the House. Partly spurred by the Williams firing, GOP lawmakers have vowed to cut federal funding for public broadcasting. Several NPR staffers said they hoped the latest moves would mollify critics in Congress, but the chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), said, "From my perspective, it doesn't change anything." Ellen Weiss, the 28-year NPR veteran who resigned Thursday, was the editor who decided to terminate Williams after he told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that he became "nervous" flying with people dressed in "Muslim garb." NPR justified the firing by saying that Williams had ignored years of warnings that he limit his comments to news analysis, and not offer personal opinions, while appearing on other networks. But the firing created a storm of criticism, particularly from Fox News, whose hosts said NPR was trying to stifle free expression. Weiss, who fired Williams over the phone, had been one of the architects of NPR's rise as a news organization. For many years, she served as executive producer of the network's signature evening news show, "All Things Considered." She was also responsible for hiring many of the organization's top producers and on-air correspondents. During her tenure, NPR's audience soared. Its programs now reach about 27 million listeners per week. NPR's stature has grown as radio news has disappeared in many communities. Local NPR affiliates are often the only source of in-depth national and international radio news in some cities and smaller towns. Weiss's resignation was met with shock inside NPR. Several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to comment publicly said that Weiss was given little choice but to resign, given the tone of NPR's board and the pressure from Congress. Weiss was unavailable to comment. Schiller held a series of meetings with NPR's staff Thursday, during which several people expressed dismay at Weiss's resignation, saying it was too severe under the circumstances. In an interview Thursday, Schiller said she "fully accepted" the board's decision to cancel her bonus, which she said had not been determined for the current fiscal year. (Schiller could not recall the amount of her bonus in fiscal 2009, and NPR said it did not have that information.) At the time of Williams's firing, Schiller backed Weiss's decision and later quipped that Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." She apologized to Williams and called the remark "thoughtless." "Almost from the beginning, I acknowledged mistakes were made in the process," she said Thursday, without being specific. "This is not something new. I've been saying it consistently and had several conversations with the board about it." Schiller and Dave Edwards, chairman of NPR's board, declined to discuss Weiss's resignation, calling it a private personnel matter. NPR's board said in a statement that it found that the firing was legally sound and that it was "not the result of special interest group or donor pressure." Many conservatives, including several hosts of Fox News programs, speculated that the firing was prompted by liberal philanthropist George Soros, who had donated $1.8 million to NPR for a local-reporting initiative in the week before Williams made his comments. The board also chided the organization's management for the "speed and handling" of the firing and said it would adopt several recommendations as a result of the internal investigation, among them updating its ethics code to spell out what kinds of comments are permissible when its correspondents and analysts speak on TV or elsewhere. It also said it was "taking appropriate disciplinary action with respect to certain management employees involved in the termination," but it did not spell out the specific punishment. In explaining the decision to withhold Schiller's bonus, the board said: "The Board has expressed confidence in Vivian Schiller's leadership going forward. She accepted responsibility as CEO and cooperated fully with the review process. The Board, however, expressed concern over her role in the termination process and has voted that she will not receive a 2010 bonus." Lamborn introduced two pieces of legislation this week that would stop the flow of federal dollars to public broadcasting. One bill would eliminate NPR's direct funding, but not the money Congress gives to its affiliated stations. Lamborn estimated that this would save $30 million to $100 million annually, but NPR says it receives only about $2.4 million annually in federal grants. A second bill would eliminate all federal funds from public radio and TV stations, saving about $430 million annually. "I like some of their programming," Lamborn said. "But apart from any ideological component about NPR, the fact is we can't support a luxury service that could stand on its own in a day of multitrillion-dollar deficits." NPR said Margaret Low Smith, vice president of programming and a veteran news executive, will replace Weiss on an interim basis. Williams declined to participate in the review, NPR said. Commenting on Fox News, where he is now a full-time analyst, Williams said Thursday: "I think it is good news for NPR if they can get someone who I think has been the keeper of a flame of liberal orthodoxy out of NPR. I think she represented a very ingrown, incestuous culture in that institution that's not open to not only different ways of thinking, but angry at the fact that I would even talk or be on Fox. . . . To my mind, this is good news for NPR and for people who care about news in America." He went on to say that NPR has "a culture there that is not open to real news, that is not open to all points of view, that is not open to the real world around us and to the many different dynamics, perspectives and life stories that animate America." An NPR spokesman would not comment.