Weiss exits NPR after board reviews newsman’s firing

Williams sees former boss
as liberals’ ‘keeper of flame’

When the NPR Board hired a law firm in November to review the dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams, everyone in the room acknowledged that the decision had been badly handled. But no one knew who would be held accountable for it.

On Jan. 6 [2011], hours before the board announced its decisions based on the investigation by Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, Ellen Weiss submitted her resignation as senior v.p. of news.

Weiss, who worked 28 years in NPR News, was the exec who told Williams in an Oct. 20 phone call that his public radio gig was over.

The board also punished NPR President Vivian Schiller, who had approved the Williams termination before Weiss made that phone call, by denying Schiller a 2010 performance bonus. The amount of the lost bonus isn’t known; NPR says board discussion of the amount was pre-empted by the disciplinary action.

Schiller took blistering public criticism after the firing, especially for her on-camera quip suggesting that Williams needed a psychiatrist. But last week she kept her job with a vote of confidence from the board.

“Vivian joined NPR two years ago, and she’s been an extremely effective leader,” Chair Dave Edwards told Current. “She’s dealt with difficult issues and financial problems.” In addition, Schiller “has been fully supportive of all the remedial measures the board recommended,” he said.   

The firing last October, prompted by Williams’s televised remarks to Fox News provocateur Bill O’Reilly about fearing Muslims in airliners, exposed NPR to a fierce partisan attack, with major legislative repercussions now pending (story, page 4).

While Schiller repeatedly apologized for NPR’s handling of the firing, she resolutely stood by the dismissal, asserting that the news analyst’s comments had violated NPR’s standards of journalistic ethics.

During an emotional interview Jan. 7 after her resignation, Weiss declined to discuss the details of the decision to terminate NPR’s contract with Williams or the circumstances surrounding her resignation.

“NPR’s decision to terminate the Williams contract, of which I was a participant, was based on the highest journalistic standards,” Weiss said.  It was an NPR decision, based on NPR’s ethics, and her job as news chief to uphold them.

Weiss began her NPR career in 1982, answering phones on the network’s Washington desk. She worked her way up to become executive producer of All Things Considered in 1989 and to senior editor of the national desk in 2001. In 2007, after two outside journalists had short terms as NPR News chiefs — Jeffrey Dvorkin of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman Bill Marimow — NPR elevated Weiss from the home team.

More than 100 members of the news staff signed a petition endorsing her as the best candidate identified during a national search.

Over nearly three decades, Weiss shared credit for many of the major journalism prizes won by NPR, and news accounts last week portrayed her career path as an inspiration to many in the newsroom. Some news staffers described her as a harsh disciplinarian.

The review by the Weil law firm found that NPR honored the severance terms of Williams’s contract and was not influenced by special-interest groups or donor pressure, as Fox News hosts alleged. The Weil findings also endorsed the need for re-examination and equitable application of NPR’s ethical code and policies toward NPR journalists who appear on other media outlets.

When NPR Board members heard reports from Weil’s investigators during closed meetings via telephone during the holidays, they learned just how badly the firing had been handled, according to Edwards, who serves on the NPR Board as g.m. of Milwaukee Public Radio. “We’re even more convinced that it was handled poorly. It was confirmed by everything that we learned,” he said.

“We know that the termination was done hastily and that the way it was done contributed to some of the misunderstandings of why it was done and criticism of the organization,” Edwards said.

Weil’s team did not prepare a written report: the only documents released last week were the board’s Jan. 6 statement and Schiller’s e-mail announcing Weiss’s resignation to NPR staff.
Weiss had “made meaningful and lasting contributions to the evolution of NPR and our newsroom,” Schiller wrote. “Ellen exemplifies journalistic professionalism and integrity. I am grateful to her for all she has accomplished at NPR.”

Juan Williams was pleased that Weiss was out at NPR. Williams, now a full-time Fox News contributor with a three-year, nearly $2 million contract, said: “It’s good news . . . if they can get someone who has been the keeper of the flame of liberal orthodoxy out of NPR.” Weiss represented an “ingrown, incestuous culture” at NPR that was hostile to his relationship with Fox.

Williams said he declined to talk with Weil’s investigators because he “didn’t know whether they were going to further defame me.” He compared Schiller’s e-mail complimenting Weiss for her professionalism to propaganda issued by Pravda.
“You can’t go around treating people like trash and acting like anyone who has a different point of view is illegitimate,” Williams said.

Glass: “A damn shame”

Angry — and anguished — reactions came from public radio supporters and insiders as well, who saw Weiss’s ouster as a capitulation to Fox News and a trophy for conservative politicians.
James Fallows, an occasional NPR contributor, wrote on his blog for The Atlantic that he was sorry for Weiss, for NPR “and for the likelihood that … she will be presented on the Fox side as a ’liberal scalp in atonement for Williams’s.’”

“Whatever is admirable about NPR’s news ambitions and standards — and to my mind, quite a lot is admirable — is to a meaningful degree a reflection of Weiss’s own ambitions and standards,” Fallows wrote. After nearly three decades of distinctive contributions at NPR, Weiss was let go for her misjudgment in one situation, he said.

“It’s really a damn shame,” said Ira Glass of This American Life, who worked with Weiss as an independent producer and during their early careers at NPR. “Everything I value in public radio, she’s a strong advocate for. It’s a bad thing for public radio if she’s not working for public radio.”

“A manager makes a lot of decisions over the course of a year, and this one wasn’t a good one,” Glass said, referring to the Williams firing. But against that decision, he said, “you could balance a lot of great things she did — not just for NPR News but the entire public radio system. She was a real force for trying to figure out what NPR News should become and what NPR should do next.”

Political correctness “eruptions”

Others saw Weiss’s exit as an opportunity for NPR to strengthen its news division. Having spent her career at NPR, Weiss was “part of the insularity that has been a problem,” said John Dinges, a journalism professor at Columbia University and former NPR managing editor. “It’s not that this has prevented NPR from being a great news organization. It’s a problem that results in these eruptions of political correctness, these errors of judgment.”

“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t have a management culture that looks far enough beyond the confines of the building or has had enough experience in the larger world of journalism to make the right call on these kinds of things or be able to stand up to pressure from the outside,” Dinges said.

The NPR Board reiterated its support for the review of the net’s ethical standards ethics that Schiller initiated after the Williams fiasco. Schiller is chairing the committee of journalists from inside and outside of NPR. 

“This has been a difficult period for all of us,” Schiller wrote in an e-mail to the NPR staff that accompanied the board’s statement. “Now is the time to focus on what we can do to make NPR an even stronger organization.” 

PR will seek external and internal candidates for Weiss’s successor, according to the message. In the interim, Programming V.P. Margaret Low Smith will run the news division. (She does not intend to apply for the job.) Smith began working at NPR the same year as Weiss, and for many years was her colleague on the staff of All Things Considered.

Edwards emphasized that the board played no role in Weiss’s resignation. “The decision of Ellen to resign today was not something the board was involved in,” Edwards said. “We’re aware of what transpired, but we count on the c.e.o. to put together the best possible team.” 

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Copyright 2011 American University