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Supporters decry exit of NPR's Ellen Weiss in Juan Williams firing

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 9:36 PM

People at NPR and in public radio reacted with shock and anger Friday over the resignation of NPR's top editor for her role in firing commentator Juan Williams, with one official telling colleagues that NPR's response amounted to "capitulation" to conservative critics.

Some blamed congressional conservatives and Fox News - which had repeatedly denounced NPR since the October firing - for inflaming the situation, which led to the resignation on Thursday of Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news. Weiss was the NPR executive who terminated Williams for saying he was "nervous" flying on a plane with people in "Muslim garb" on Bill O'Reilly's TV program. Since his firing, Williams signed a three-year contract with Fox for almost $2 million.

"We have allowed Fox News to define the debate," wrote Peter Block, a member of the board of Cincinnati Public Radio, in a posting to an e-mail group consisting of public radio managers. He added, "I do not think this kind of capitulation [by NPR] assures the future of an independent press. . . . Democracy is on the line and NPR is one of the last bastions of its possibility." Block said in an interview that NPR's reaction "lacked integrity." NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, also pointed to Fox, noting in her column, that the Williams "incident has become a partisan issue in Washington's hothouse atmosphere, with Republicans (egged on by Fox News) using it as a rallying cry to demand that NPR be 'defunded' by the federal government."

Following a two-month internal investigation, NPR's board questioned the "speed and handling" of Williams's firing, which Weiss carried out with a phone call and without a face-to-face meeting. As a result of the investigation, the board also voted to deny NPR President Vivian Schiller, who approved the termination, a bonus in 2010. Neither Schiller nor board members have commented in detail about the reasons for her disciplinary action or for Weiss's resignation.

NPR hadn't set a bonus for Schiller this year when the board voted to deny her one, but the sanction seems costly, given previous bonuses.

According to tax records released by NPR on Friday, Schiller received a bonus of $112,500 in May 2010, about 17 months after she was hired by the Washington-based organization. This was in addition to a base salary of $450,000. The bonus was included in her hiring package, NPR said.

The preceding year, before Schiller's arrival, NPR paid out $1.22 million in salary, bonuses and deferred compensation to Schiller's predecessor, Kevin Klose, who retired that year. It paid another $1.22 million to Ken Stern, its president, who was forced out. Stern's compensation was swelled by a early buyout of his contract, according to NPR.

People at NPR said resigning may have preserved severance payments that Weiss would have had to forgo had she been fired.

NPR's journalists and others in public radio offered effusive praise for Weiss, a highly popular figure who worked her way up from a job answering phones in 1982 to become the organization's top editorial manager. Over the years, Weiss, 51, served as executive producer of NPR's evening news program, "All Things Considered," and ran NPR's national desk, among other assignments.

"She's the greatest," said Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life" who worked with Weiss when he started as a 19-year-old employee at NPR (Glass's program is distributed by Public Radio International, an NPR rival). "As a journalist and a manager, she's an ally for everything good in public radio. It's a shame that she's having to go out because of this one decision. It's bad for public radio and bad for everything we believe in as journalists."

Glass said Weiss was instrumental in forming "Planet Money," a special reporting unit that has won major awards for its work explaining the economic crisis. The unit, which reports for NPR programs and for "This American Life," is unusual because it is an editorial collaboration between NPR and PRI.

Glass suggested that Weiss was a victim of political forces aligning against public broadcasting in a newly conservative Congress. "The only possible way to understand her resigning is to prepare NPR and public radio in general for this fight that will happen over funding in the coming months," he said.

Guy Raz, who hosts the weekend edition of "All Things Considered," called Weiss "the finest journalist I ever worked for. . . . She's a pretty legendary figure in the newsroom. For many people, she's an inspiration that you could start at the bottom and make it to the top if you worked hard it. It's a cliche, but she really set the standard for integrity."

Some employees interviewed Friday steered clear of criticizing NPR's upper management, but Raz said there was some anger in the newsroom. "It's a pretty natural reaction," he said. "Yeah, I think we're angry because she was such a good leader. She really knew how to lead this organization," he said.

Economics reporter Adam Davidson said Weiss had "the single most important role in the development of NPR over the past 20 years. . . . I don't think there's anyone in the history of public radio who has had as positive an impact. I'm shaken and shocked" by her exit.

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