NPR was roundly criticized for acting too hastily in its firing of commentator Juan Williams in October. And now, just one day after a sting video by conservative activist James O'Keefe surfaced, catching an NPR fundraising executive calling tea party members racist and xenophobic on film, the network has asked for the resignation of NPR's CEO too.
So did the network act too quickly this time? First, let's consider the case of Ron Schiller, the fundraising executive who made comments about the tea party and NPR's funding. Had Schiller not already been planning to leave NPR for the Aspen Institute, his comments as depicted in the video were unprofessional at best and damaging to NPR at worst, and certainly potential grounds for dismissal. Although set up as part of an undercover operation, Schiller made remarks that had no place in any business meeting, much less one involving a news organization like NPR. (As of Wednesday, Schiller is no longer going to be working for the Aspen Institute, either.)
Now, the tougher question: Should NPR's board have asked for Vivian Schiller's resignation? (The two executives are not related.) The answer is less certain. Schiller was reprimanded and fairly criticized for her handling of the Williams firing. She made comments over the affair that did not befit any leader, saying that Williams should have kept his remarks about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist."
But Vivian Schiller has already been penalized for her handling of the matter, making a public apology and forgoing her bonus for 2010. Meanwhile, she has made clear that she had no prior knowledge of Ron Schiller's remarks, and "disavowed" them as soon as she heard about them. And she has by all accounts accomplished much since joining in January 2009, re-orienting NPR toward the digital age and putting it back into the black after being in financial turmoil.
In many less polarized settings, that would have been enough to keep her planted firmly in her job. She would have sharply criticized her employee's comments, sent him immediately on his way, and set up some kind of sensitivity training for her salesforce. The scandal likely would have swept right by her. Many leaders who've achieved less have survived much worse.
But in the politically charged world in which NPR now resides, the rules are different. Republicans are pushing to strip the network of its public funding, an effort that gained enthusiasm following the Williams controversy.
NPR has "the fight of its life on its hands," as NPR Ombudsman Lisa Shepherd wrote Wednesday on the Post's web site. And in that environment, a CEO whose reputation was stained from the Williams flap, and who apparently hired Ron Schiller, Shepherd writes, could be more of a distraction than anything.
Removing her likely won't solve many of NPR's problems--the organization is now without a permanent CEO, a news director and a chief fundraiser. And it's unclear that it will be enough of an olive branch to those wanting to end public financing. But maybe, just maybe, it will have some kind of "intended effect of easing the defunding pressure on public broadcasting," as Schiller told the New York Times.
What do you think: Should Schiller have resigned?