NPR executive Ellen Weiss resigns in the wake of firing Juan Williams for Muslim-gate
Back in October, when NPR summarily fired Juan Williams for his comments about some Muslims giving him the jitters when he flew on airplanes, I said the radio network looked jittery and hypocritical. It unequally applied an ethics code that badly needs updating.
With the announcement Thursday afternoon that top news official Ellen Weiss had resigned, NPR took a large step toward admitting its mistakes. (Footnote to history: The bosses at NPR had planned to announce the Weiss departure Friday, but moved the announcement up by a day after I told them I was about to post a story reporting Weiss' departure.)
People familiar with an independent investigation conducted by the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges said that it found that Weiss moved with needless speed in cutting loose Williams. The longtime NPR commentator and former Washington Post reporter had told Fox host Bill O'Reilly in late October that he sometimes got "worried" and "nervous" when he saw people in "Muslim garb" boarding his airplane.
NPR officials said that statement violated their policy against their employees expressing personal opinions, either on the radio network or in other public appearances. The policy struck me, and many others, as a bit odd and outdated, though. Wasn't it obvious that Williams and other NPR personalities had been appearing for years on cable TV? And doesn't cable-land exist to beg personal opinions from talking heads?
NPR chief exec Vivian Schiller sent an e-mail (full text after the jump) to employees Thursday informing them about Weiss' departure. She included a statement from the NPR board that said Schiller herself would not get a bonus for 2010, a mild admonishment meant to acknowledge her oversight of the Williams firing.
Bigger trouble could be awaiting NPR on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have just taken a majority in the House and have been talking tough about cutting unneeded government spending. Public broadcasting has been a favorite target in the past.
While NPR central gets only a small fraction of its funding from the feds, many local affiliate stations rely heavily on funding from Uncle Sam. They could be badly hurt if the Williams termination debacle pushes Congress to zero-out the public radio budget.
Photo: News analyst Juan Williams of Fox News was fired last October by NPR for expressing his personal opinion during a guest appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor." Williams said he sometimes feared Muslims dressed in "Muslim garb" who boarded his airplane. NPR news vice president Ellen Weiss stepped down as a result of her firing of Williams. Credit: Richard Drew / Associated Press
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller e-mailed her employees Thursday to report that the network's top news official was resigning. Her memo is below, along with a statement from the NPR board about other intended reforms:
NPR SVP for News Ellen Weiss has notified me that she will be leaving her position. Over her decades at NPR, Ellen has made meaningful and lasting contributions to the evolution of NPR and our newsroom. She is a strong journalist who has brought her considerable talents to how NPR covers the world and meets the ever-increasing expectations of today’s audiences. Ellen exemplifies journalistic professionalism and integrity. I’m grateful to her for what she has accomplished at NPR, and I encourage you to reach out to her in the days ahead with your own thanks.
I’ve asked Vice President for Programming Margaret Low Smith to step in as acting senior vice president for news until we’ve found Ellen’s replacement. Margaret is an accomplished newswoman. She spent nearly 14 years in the news division, ultimately as a senior producer for All Things Considered, before she joined NPR’s senior management team. She knows our programming, staff, and stations well, and she is a talented executive and leader. Eric Nuzum will oversee the programming division during this interim period. Margaret and I will be meeting with different departments in News over the next few days. I will distribute a proposed schedule for those meetings shortly.
In the coming weeks we will begin a search for Ellen’s replacement. The position will be posted on NPR.org, and we expect a strong slate of both internal and external candidates. Margaret has indicated that she will not be a candidate for the position.
The NPR Board of Directors has also completed the review of the events leading to the termination of Juan Williams’ contract as a part-time news analyst. This independent review was undertaken at the request of the NPR Board and performed by the Weil firm. Attached is the Board’s statement. There is no written “report” aside from this statement, which summarizes the overall outcome of the Weil review. This is typical for this kind of outside review.
As you will see, the review surfaces important issues that I have committed to address in terms of how we operate internally. Most of the actions to be taken are already in process. The review of NPR’s News Code of Ethics and Social Media Policy is underway to assure that the guidelines are clear, consistent, and relevant to today’s media environment. That will be followed by information sessions for all News staff and some outside the newsroom. We’ve also strengthened our termination procedures and our communications protocols.
This has been a difficult period for all of us. Now is the time to focus on what we can do to make NPR an even stronger organization and a more meaningful part of daily life for the millions who depend on us each week. I am committed to making NPR one of the best places to work and a rewarding experience for all employees.
As always, should you receive any media inquiries about these developments I ask that you refer them to NPR Communications at x2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Statement from the NPR board attached to Vivian Schiller's e-mail to her staff:
NPR Announces Completion of Review of
The Termination of Juan Williams’ Contract
Washington, DC January 6, 2011 – The NPR Board of Directors announced today that it has completed its review into the facts and circumstances leading to the termination of NPR's contract with senior news analyst Juan Williams. The review also included an examination of how other NPR analysts and correspondents have been treated under the NPR Ethics Code with respect to on-air comments. The independent members of NPR's Board (the “Board”) worked with outside legal counsel, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP (“Weil”), to gather information related to the contract termination.
In light of the review and feedback provided to them, the Board has adopted recommendations and remedial measures designed to address issues that surfaced with the review. The recommendations and remedial measures range from new internal procedures concerning personnel and on air-talent decisions to taking appropriate disciplinary action with respect to certain management employees involved in the termination. Some of these changes have already been made and others are in process. Specifically, the Board adopted recommendations that NPR:
• Establish a committee comprised of NPR personnel, respected journalists, and others from outside NPR to review and update NPR’s current Ethics Code (the “Code”).
• Develop policies and procedures to ensure consistent application of and training on the Code to all employees and contractors.
• Review and update policies/training with respect to the role of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets to ensure that they understand the applicability of the Ethics Code to their work and to facilitate equitable and consistent application of the Code.
• Review and define the roles of NPR journalists (including news analysts) to address a changing news environment in which such individuals have a myriad of outlets and new platforms for their talent, balancing the opportunities presented by such outlets and platforms with the potential for conflicts of interest that may compromise NPR’s mission.
• Ensure that its practices encourage a broad range of viewpoints to assist its decision-making, support its mission, and reflect the diversity of its national audiences. The Human Resources Committee of the Board is working in conjunction with key members of NPR management on this issue.
Williams’ contract was terminated in accordance with its terms. The contract gave both parties the right to terminate on 30 days’ notice for any reason. The facts gathered during the review revealed that the termination was not the result of special interest group or donor pressure. However, because of concerns regarding the speed and handling of the termination process, the Board additionally recommended that certain actions be taken with regard to management involved in Williams’ contract termination.
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.
NPR also announced that Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice-President for News, has resigned.
“We have taken this situation very seriously and the Board believes these recommendations and remedial steps address the concerns raised in connection with the termination of Williams’ contract,” said Dave Edwards, Chair. “The Board regrets this incident’s impact on NPR and will work with NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, to ensure that these actions will be expeditiously completed, examined, and monitored on an ongoing basis.”
In conducting the review, Weil gathered thousands of documents from various sources and interviewed many current and former NPR employees and contractors. Weil requested Williams’ participation in the review through both his agent and a former NPR colleague. Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful and Williams was not interviewed.
The Ad Hoc Committee and the non-management members of the Board met on multiple occasions and deliberated on the information provided to them. Weil reported to an Ad Hoc Committee of the NPR Board consisting of Dave Edwards (Chair of the Board), Howard Stevenson (Immediate Past Chair), and Carol Cartwright (Vice-Chair).