Editor who fired Juan Williams resigns after NPR review
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 10:11 PM
NPR's top news editor resigned Thursday after an internal review found that the Washington news organization mishandled the firing of news analyst Juan Williams over controversial remarks he made on a TV program in October.
In an additional piece of fallout from the firing, NPR's board voted to cancel the annual bonus of NPR's chief executive, Vivian Schiller, who supported the decision to fire Williams and made some ill-timed comments about it, for which she later apologized.
Both moves come as a new Republican majority takes over in the House. Partly spurred by the Williams firing, GOP lawmakers have vowed to cut federal funding for public broadcasting. Several NPR staffers said they hoped the latest moves would mollify critics in Congress, but the chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), said, "From my perspective, it doesn't change anything."
Ellen Weiss, the 28-year NPR veteran who resigned Thursday, was the editor who decided to terminate Williams after he told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that he became "nervous" flying with people dressed in "Muslim garb."
NPR justified the firing by saying that Williams had ignored years of warnings that he limit his comments to news analysis, and not offer personal opinions, while appearing on other networks. But the firing created a storm of criticism, particularly from Fox News, whose hosts said NPR was trying to stifle free expression.
Weiss, who fired Williams over the phone, had been one of the architects of NPR's rise as a news organization. For many years, she served as executive producer of the network's signature evening news show, "All Things Considered." She was also responsible for hiring many of the organization's top producers and on-air correspondents.
During her tenure, NPR's audience soared. Its programs now reach about 27 million listeners per week. NPR's stature has grown as radio news has disappeared in many communities. Local NPR affiliates are often the only source of in-depth national and international radio news in some cities and smaller towns.
Weiss's resignation was met with shock inside NPR. Several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to comment publicly said that Weiss was given little choice but to resign, given the tone of NPR's board and the pressure from Congress. Weiss was unavailable to comment. Schiller held a series of meetings with NPR's staff Thursday, during which several people expressed dismay at Weiss's resignation, saying it was too severe under the circumstances.
In an interview Thursday, Schiller said she "fully accepted" the board's decision to cancel her bonus, which she said had not been determined for the current fiscal year. (Schiller could not recall the amount of her bonus in fiscal 2009, and NPR said it did not have that information.) At the time of Williams's firing, Schiller backed Weiss's decision and later quipped that Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." She apologized to Williams and called the remark "thoughtless."
"Almost from the beginning, I acknowledged mistakes were made in the process," she said Thursday, without being specific. "This is not something new. I've been saying it consistently and had several conversations with the board about it."
Schiller and Dave Edwards, chairman of NPR's board, declined to discuss Weiss's resignation, calling it a private personnel matter.
NPR's board said in a statement that it found that the firing was legally sound and that it was "not the result of special interest group or donor pressure." Many conservatives, including several hosts of Fox News programs, speculated that the firing was prompted by liberal philanthropist George Soros, who had donated $1.8 million to NPR for a local-reporting initiative in the week before Williams made his comments.