The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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NPR: Juan Williams and Ellen Weiss are gone and nobody gains

January 7, 2011 |  5:41 pm

NPREllenWeiss A little more than two months after it bounced commentator Juan Williams, NPR this week forced out Ellen Weiss, the news executive who let Williams go.

Neither departure makes a lot of sense. Williams had to go, we are told, because his opinions were too opinionated. NPR ethics guidelines prohibit employees, even ones hired as analysts, from giving personal opinions.

Weiss got pushed toward resignation for exuberantly enforcing that no-opinion policy. We are told she had to go, not because the Williams termination was wrong, but because it was executed too hastily.

That seems like a lot of personnel movement in response to very little actual harm, at a news organization that is otherwise gaining in credibility and audience size.

The outcome has left just about everyone unhappy and brought a heap of unwanted attention to NPR, just as Republicans in Congress are looking for places to slash the federal budget.

As I wrote in my On the Media column, I think the radio network delivers a solid product that usually refutes charges of liberal bias. But I also suggested it may be time for a new kind of affirmative action, to assure more conservative representation on NPR’s news staff.

If NPR has a great defense of the Williams or Weiss terminations, the network's executives are not making it this week. A review by the law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges was supposed to provide some clarity.

But that review was meant to inform the board of directors. Any chance the public will ever see it is  virtually nonexistent. It does not even exist in written form, according to a report on NPR's website. Even if there was a Weil document, not many employers want to rush private personnel matters into public view.

That leaves a lot of unanswered questions:  Was Williams really warned on multiple previous occasions about letting his personal views hang out in public? How many times was he put on notice, and how did he respond?

As to Weiss, who worked at NPR her entire adult life: Did she really get in such hot water for merely moving Williams out too quickly? NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller approved the Williams axing, so doesn’t that mean Weiss was not ultimately responsible for the firing? Or is there something more?

Williams has landed on his feet. His previous part-time employer, Fox News, immediately gave him a full-time job as an analyst and a three-year contract reportedly valued at $2 million. In several appearances on the cable outlet Thursday, he went about bashing NPR as an unreformed liberal monolith. He cheered Weiss’ departure.

In an interview shortly after her resignation this week, Weiss told me she had no idea what her next job would be. She declined to say anything about Williams, 56.

A mixture of reactions flashed through the radio network's Washington headquarters. Several employees told me how much they admired Weiss, 51. They called the senior vice president for news the glue that held the operation together. Others pictured her as a divisive figure who played favorites.

Some NPR employees questioned whether she had paid her dues working as a producer in the studio rather than in the field as a reporter.

Adam Davidson, co-founder of “Planet Money,” the award-winning financial program, described Weiss as a strong leader with a great eye for news and ear for storytelling.

“She knows the intricacies of how things get done in the public radio world. She knows the craft of radio really well,” said Davidson. “She knows how to put together a great narrative. And then, on top of that, she has that big, broad vision of where things need to go in the larger media landscape. I’m not saying you can’t replace her, but she had an incredibly unique set of skills.”

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Ellen Weiss resigned this week as senior vice president for news at NPR, following a critical report about the firing last year of commentator Juan Williams. Weiss spent nearly 29 years at the radio network. Credit: NPR