Top NPR official stepping down
National Public Radio’s admission that it botched the handling of Juan Williams’ termination last year, resulting in the resignation of its top news executive Thursday, seems certain to reignite a push by conservatives in Congress to cut government funding for the news organization.
The sponsor of a bill to eliminate NPR’s taxpayer support — as well as a proposal to stop federal money for all of public broadcasting, including TV — said the re-airing of the Williams affair this week would put more heat on institutions already unpopular with congressional Republicans.
“The whole issue with Juan Williams has to focus attention on the fact that there appears to be an ideological slant to some of their activities at NPR,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), sponsor of the defunding bills. “No American should have to pay for ideology he or she disagrees with. And government doesn’t have business funding any ideology, whether we agree with it or not.”
NPR found itself back on Congress’ front burner Thursday, after the network announced the resignation of Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news. It also acknowledged, after a law firm’s independent review, that it needed to revamp its ethics guidelines and make them more attuned to today’s multichannel, nonstop news environment.
Weiss, 51, agreed to step down after 28 years with the radio network. She fired Williams in October for his comments on Fox News about fearing some Muslims who had boarded planes with him.
The Williams termination touched off a furor and led to an acknowledgment by NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller that Williams had been let go too quickly, without a face-to-face meeting or thorough review. The NPR board began a review, and the results were announced Thursday.
Schiller has been admonished for her part in the controversy and will not receive a bonus for 2010, according to a news release from the NPR board of directors that was e-mailed to employees Thursday. She will remain in her post, however, and received a vote of confidence from the NPR board, the release 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 release said. “The board, however, expressed concern over her role in the termination process and has voted that she will not receive a 2010 bonus.”
The statement expressed “concerns regarding the speed and handling of the termination process” and said that led to “certain actions … with regard to management involved in Williams’ contract termination.”
The statement did not single out Weiss or say whether any punishment had been recommended, but that seemed evident given her resignation.
Weiss called her decision to step down as the top news executive at NPR “extremely hard,” but she did not criticize NPR or back away from her firing of Williams. She said she did not make the decision to fire Williams alone, referring to Schiller’s approval of the move.
“What I would say is that the decision to terminate the Juan Williams contract by NPR, of which I was a participant, was based on the highest journalistic standards,” Weiss said.
She also expressed pride in the work she did at the network, which she joined shortly after graduating college. Weiss said she thought she had left the news operation in good shape and would continue to “love and admire NPR.” She added, “It’s an incredible institution that is way bigger than one individual.”
Appearing Thursday on Fox News, where he is now a full-time commentator at a reported $2-million salary over three years, Williams expressed mild surprise at the outcome of the NPR investigation. He said he thought the review might be used to denigrate him.
He called Weiss’ resignation “good news” and described the former news chief as the enforcer of “liberal orthodoxy” within NPR. Weiss declined to respond to that criticism.
The controversy began with an appearance Williams made in late October on the Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor.” Conservative host Bill O’Reilly had recently been on ABC’s “The View,” where he said that “Muslims killed us on 9/11,” causing two of the co-hosts to walk off the set in protest of a statement they considered bigoted.
O’Reilly subsequently asked Williams, one of his regular guests, to weigh in. Williams said that “political correctness” shouldn’t stop Americans from expressing their real fears about terrorism.
“When I get on a plane,” Williams said, “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.”
Two days later, Weiss called Williams and fired him for violating a provision in the NPR ethics guidelines against its news staff expressing personal opinions. NPR journalists, the code says, “should not participate in shows … that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
Williams had been warned about opinion-making on multiple previous occasions, according to Schiller and others at the network. But some critics said NPR applied the rule unequally, letting some of its other personalities offer opinions on Fox and other outlets. Williams reacted furiously, saying he had been censored.
The new Republican majority in the House has vowed to slash any program deemed nonessential. NPR and public television have been targeted by conservatives for years. Democrats have countered that the bulk of funding for public radio goes to affiliate stations, many of them small operations they said would be crippled by cuts.
Even before Weiss’ resignation, third-term congressman Lamborn had introduced his bills to cut funding for NPR (HR 69) and for all of public broadcasting (HR 68).
“We have a trillion-plus deficit every year under Barack Obama and that is going to continue if we don’t change,” Lamborn said. “That is simply unsustainable as a nation. We have to stop funding things that aren’t completely necessary.”
Lamborn said his proposal, which would take effect after fiscal 2013, specifically exempts public radio affiliates from the cuts. They would continue to get money from the government, as long as they didn’t use any of it to buy programs from NPR. The lawmaker said he had attracted more than 15 co-sponsors and expected more.
Democrats have defended NPR and said the federal government’s investment is only a small, but important, fraction of its overall budget. Advocates for public radio said forbidding local stations from spending on NPR programs would be untenable, since those stations don’t have enough money to make their own shows and rely on NPR as their principal news supplier.