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After Williams's firing, NPR fears financial backlash

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; A1

NPR faced fierce public and political reaction - most of it strongly negative - in the wake of its firing of commentator Juan Williams for comments he made on a Fox News program earlier in the week.

Even NPR's own staff expressed exasperation at the decision during a meeting Friday with NPR's president, Vivian Schiller. Several of those who attended said Schiller told employees that she regretted how she handled the episode.

The most serious issue facing NPR may be whether Williams's firing will cause lasting damage to public broadcasting's finances. Many conservative lawmakers and politicians - including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) - have called on Congress to curtail or eliminate federal subsidies for public broadcasting.

The threat of a funding cutoff is an old one among conservatives, who have long characterized NPR as a bastion of liberal bias. But some at NPR and in public broadcasting worry about the timing of the calls this time. The Williams controversy broke less than two weeks before a midterm election that may restore Republican control of the House and Senate.

While NPR receives only about 2 percent of its $154 million annual budget from federal sources, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Arts, its 800-plus member stations are much more reliant on tax subsidies. Some smaller stations receive as much as a third of their operating revenue from federal sources.

The firing drew thousands of e-mails and phone calls to NPR's downtown Washington headquarters, the majority of them expressing outrage. The deluge crashed the "Contact Us" form on NPR's Web site by Thursday afternoon, according to NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard.

"They want NPR to hire him back immediately," Shepard wrote on NPR's site. "If NPR doesn't, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. . . . It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger."

On an e-mail discussion group for public radio's station managers, Williams's firing drew both supportive and critical comments, but many questioned whether NPR could have avoided the public-relations firestorm with a different course of action.

NPR fired Williams late Wednesday after he told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that he felt "nervous" when he boarded an airplane alongside people in "Muslim garb." Almost immediately after the firing, Fox News gave Williams a new contract worth nearly $2 million.

Washington-based NPR said the firing was the culmination of a long series of run-ins with Williams in which he was warned to stick to news analysis and not veer into personal opinions or inflammatory commentary. NPR executives have also said they have been concerned that Fox News has used Williams, an avowedly liberal analyst, to paint NPR itself as a liberal news organization rather than a nonpartisan one.

In a meeting with employees that had been scheduled before the Williams story broke, Schiller acknowledged that NPR didn't manage the firing well, but offered no specifics. She said NPR would conduct a "post-mortem" next week to review how the firing was handled, according to employees who attended the meeting, which was closed to the news media. Schiller didn't say who would handle the review or what the consequences of it might be.

An NPR spokeswoman, Dana Davis Rehm, said the review won't second-guess the decision itself, but would focus on how it was carried out. Schiller declined to comment.

Staffers said that at the Friday meeting, Schiller apologized again for telling an audience in Atlanta on Thursday that Williams should have kept his comments about Muslims between "himself and his psychiatrist."

"There wasn't anger" among NPR employees at the meeting, "but I did get a sense of despair and disappointment," said one NPR journalist, who asked not to be named because employees are not authorized to speak on the record about the matter. "I got the impression that [management] felt they had acted rashly and without deliberation. When [Schiller] made the psychiatrist crack, it just made matters much, much worse."

So far, Rehm said, the uproar over Williams's firing does not seem to have affected stations' ongoing pledge drives. In Washington, for example, public station WAMU-FM (88.5) was on track to surpass its goal of raising $1 million for the week.

Caryn Mathes, WAMU's general manager, declined to discuss the specifics of the Williams case, but said she supported NPR's effort to maintain consistent standards among its journalists. "News analysts and reporters and journalists and hosts are the lens through which our audiences view the world. When you make a very personal observation, it's almost like putting a big thumbprint on that lens. The next time the viewer looks through that lens, that's all he's going to see."

But Mathes said she hoped the controversy didn't translate into political action that could hurt all of public broadcasting. "I would hope that it reinforces how important it is for funding sources to be firewalled from editorial decisions. Whatever government funding a station gets needs to be protected from the vicissitudes of emotion and passion over a particular issue."

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