NPR loses c.e.o., its third exec swept away by political tornado

By Karen Everhart

One day after denouncing her top fundraiser and nine weeks after asking her news chief to resign, NPR President Vivian Schiller stepped down today at the request of the NPR Board.

She fell victim to a series of executive mistakes and mishaps that muddied NPR’s reputation in a poisonously partisan runup to key federal budget votes affecting public broadcasting.

Schiller, who made extraordinary progress in crafting a digital service strategy for NPR and its local stations since arriving in January 2009, ultimately took the fall for her management team’s political errors during an unaccustomed moment of scrutiny.

After the controversial firing of former news analyst Juan Williams last fall, Schiller seemed to recover from the missteps that put public radio in the crosshairs of Republicans who went on to take the House majority in November. She and other public radio leaders may not have seen the Williams firing fiasco as a warm-up for a protracted, no-holds-barred fight.

On Tuesday, March 8, the day after Schiller laid out her case for continued federal funding of public broadcasting to a friendly audience at the National Press Club, conservative activist James O’Keefe released a covertly recorded video that presented a very different view of public radio. The video showed the president of the NPR Foundation, Ron Schiller (no relation) disparaging the conservative Tea Party movement, evangelical Christians and the Republican Party during a luncheon with two men who were posing as prospective donors from a phony Muslim foundation.

O’Keefe not only came away with footage of Ron Schiller and a fellow NPR fundraiser chatting sociably with two supposed reps of an orthodox Islamic group founded by Americans in the Muslim Brotherhood, but also with a sound bite from Schiller that public radio would be better off without federal funding. That gave opponents of CPB appropriations another news cycle to argue that pubcasting doesn’t need the money anyway.

NPR spent 24 hours denouncing Ron Schiller’s remarks and distancing itself from him, saying that he had already announced his departure for a job at the Aspen Institute.

“Everything that has transpired has complicated NPR’s fight to maintain federal funding,” said NPR Board Chair Dave Edwards, during a telephone conference with reporters this morning.

Vivian Schiller wasn’t directly responsible for the mistakes that were made, he said, but as c.e.o. she was ultimately “accountable for all the operations of the organization.” Edwards confirmed that Vivian Schiller had offered to step aside if the board wished, and the board agreed it would be “in the best interests of the organization if that took place.”

Joyce Slocum, senior v.p. of legal affairs and general counsel, will serve as interim c.e.o., and the board will appoint an NPR executive transition committee to work out details of the search for a new executive. Before coming to NPR, Slocum was in charge of business and legal affairs at HIT Entertainment, a major producer of children’s television programs.

“It’s important to stress that Joyce has a broad knowledge of the organization and widespread respect among the staff,” Edwards said. “We are confident she will be effective as interim c.e.o.”

Ron Schiller, who is not related to Vivian Schiller but was recruited by her to join the organization in 2009, announced late yesterday that he was resigning immediately. This morning he turned down his appointment at the Aspen Institute, according to a statement released to Romenesko, the journalism blog.

Edwards, who chairs the NPR Board as g.m. of Milwaukee Public Radio, described Ron Schiller’s remarks in the sting video as “distressing” and far outside of public radio’s values. When he watched the video, he recalled, “I cannot tell you how much it bothered me to my core.”

With the departure of both Schillers, NPR has now lost three top executives in the fallout over lthe dismissal of news analyst Williams, whose regular appearances on Fox News had been increasingly problematic for the news organization. Ellen Weiss, the senior news v.p. who fired him, resigned in January after a team of lawyers from Weil Gotshal & Manges reported to the NPR Board on how NPR’s management handled the decision.

Days after the Williams firing last October, with Fox News critiquing NPR’s every move and staging ambush interviews, Schiller further inflamed the issue by remarking that Williams’ “feelings . . . expressed on Fox News are really between him and his psychiatrist or publicist.”

Schiller apologized repeatedly for the remarks and the handling of Williams’ firing, and appointed a task force that is still reviewing NPR’s ethical guidelines, including rules against NPR reporters moonlighting as pundits on other media.

In a statement issued by NPR this morning, Edwards said the board accepted Vivian Schiller’s resignation with “understanding, genuine regret and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.”

“Vivian brought vision and energy to this organization. She led NPR back from the enormous economic challenges of the previous two years. She was passionately committed to NPR’s mission, and to stations and NPR working collaboratively as a local-national news network.”

Edwards also acknowledged the turbulence at NPR and its effects on public broadcasting: “I recognize the magnitude of this news — and that it comes on top of what has been a traumatic period for NPR and the larger public radio community. The Board is committed to supporting NPR through this interim period and has confidence in NPR’s leadership team.”

EARLIER STORIES

NPR’s top fundraiser caught in right-wing video sting, posted March 8, 2011.

RELATED LINKS

Politico reports that congressional Republicans seeking to de-fund NPR say the video proves their point that NPR “would be fine without taxpayer subsidies,” as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) put it.

Rich people “have a lot of crazy ideas and aren’t afraid of expressing them,” writes Slate’s Jack Shafer, describing the lot of fundraisers like Ron Schiller, lunching with supposedly rich Muslim prospects.

Journalists inside NPR’s newsroom are angered by the mistakes of NPR’s top managers, Ombudsman Alicia Shepard writes in a live chat on the Washington Post’s website. “Working inside NPR, I can see it’s very disheartening to the reporters, hosts, producers.”

Comments, questions, tips? karen@current.org
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