View my bio

Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, January 7, 2011

What the Firing of NPR's News VP Means for Public Broadcasting

Ellen Weiss
Take it from me: being a news manager is not a popularity contest - at least not that can be easily won.

Ellen Weiss was forced out of NPR today. The apparent reason was that she, more than anyone else at NPR, mishandled the firing of the outspoken commentator, Juan Williams.

While employed by NPR, Williams also did double-duty as a commentator on Fox News. That was a problem for NPR: he would opine on Fox, in Fox-like terms which were increasingly unacceptable to NPR management. Media watchdogs would criticize him and NPR for allowing this, and NPR listeners (who probably didn't watch Fox) would complain to NPR and to their local public radio station.

The latest gaffe occurred when Williams opined on how he gets nervous whenever he sees people "in Muslim garb" getting on a plane.

That was the last straw for NPR and he was fired.

When the deed was done, it was done badly (apparently, he was not fired in a face-to-face meeting but over the phone). Worse yet from NPR's perspective, it was not done quietly (if these media messes can ever be done well). Williams' firing got a lot of ink and airtime, and not just in conservative media.

NPR quickly became a focused lightning rod for conservatives' political discontent with the media in general and with public broadcasting in particular. Public radio stations around the country objected to the firing because of the timing -  it happened just as the stations were in the midst of their fall fundraising campaigns and just before the recent midterm elections.

NPR President Vivian Schiller seemed to compound the offense by stating publicly that Williams' feelings about people in Muslim garb should be between him and his psychiatrist.

The financial impact on the NPR stations was minimal (hardly any money was lost as a result), but the reputational pounding was intense (public broadcasters, unlike their commercial cousins, bruise easily). The NPR Board (made up mostly of station managers)
called for an independent inquiry into how and why Williams was fired.

The report put most of the blame on Weiss and she was forced out today. Schiller was also found to have mishandled the Williams Affair and she was denied her annual bonus.

Those are the painful personal consequences - more so for Weiss who is out after almost 25 years at NPR. Weiss (who I consider to be a friend) leaves with a lot of great journalistic instincts, a deep knowledge of the radio news culture and an institutional memory that appears simply irreplaceable. She made enemies inside NPR. It's painful but true - no one in management is ever irreplaceable.

There are also important long term implications for NPR. NPR must now make choices that will determine whether NPR stays as a unique American institution, or whether it becomes something less visible on the ever-widening digital horizon.

Even as it announced Weiss' firing, the NPR Board released a statement which calls in part, for the following measures to be implemented:

 ·        ... 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.
This may be a good way to begin to emerge from this mess. Many media organizations have ethics codes which are often ignored until its too late. Having a code that is an integral part of any news organization may not guarantee that management and staff always do the right thing, but it's a good start. How to make the ethics code a living document is the challenge facing NPR.

There is a further dilemma: 

Juan Williams represented an aspect of NPR that was frequently ignored: can opinion be part of NPR? How much opinion can a public broadcaster tolerate? Other NPR personalities have been known to say similarly outrageous things, but they seem able to get away with it. NPR needs to address this inconsistency and the perception of unfairness that when an African-American journalist says these things, he is punished, but white NPR journalists are not.

Second, in a media environment where opinion counts for more than it once did, how does NPR stay true to its values while not abandoning the digital battlefield?

Third, can NPR balance the unique and historic qualities of public radio journalism with the constant pressures of new media forms where traditional journalistic practices seem less valued?

NPR needs to figure out how to answer these questions and to do it in a way that makes sense to its own sense of itself as a Washington based national institution, and for the remarkable local station culture that is the basis for NPR's existence.

If answers can't be found, then the best values that both Williams and Weiss brought to public radio will be lost, and the issue that caused both of them to be fired will not go away anytime soon. 


  1. As always, well said Jeffrey.

    A former Nipper

  2. Thanks. Once a Nipper, always a Nipper...