NPR probe of Juan Williams firing questions Ellen Weiss's management style

Vivian Schiller, left, and Ellen Weiss.
Vivian Schiller, left, and Ellen Weiss. (Stephen Voss, AP)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 11:35 PM

When Vivian Schiller became NPR's chief executive in early 2009, she knew enough to know that she didn't know very much about producing radio news. For that, Schiller, who formerly headed the New York Times' cable and digital businesses, relied on Ellen Weiss, NPR's top news executive. A savvy veteran, Weiss had worked her way up NPR's ranks from the bottom, spending her entire 29-year career at the organization.

By all accounts, the two women worked well together. While Schiller devoted her attention to reorganizing NPR's management and successfully closing a budget gap, Weiss concentrated on building audiences for NPR's audio programs and online news.

And then, all at once, the relationship was no more. On Jan. 4, nearly three months after Weiss had made a fateful phone call to fire analyst Juan Williams for controversial comments he made on a Fox News Channel program, Schiller met with Weiss and made a stunning demand: Resign or be fired. Two days later, NPR announced, without elaboration, that Weiss had quit.

The resignation stupefied staffers at NPR; many believed that Weiss had been pushed out to appease critics livid about the firing of Williams. Williams's firing had reignited Republican calls to eliminate federal funding for NPR, PBS and their affiliated stations. Insiders also linked Weiss's fate to a bad moment for Schiller: Weiss's departure came on the same day that NPR announced that its board of directors had voted to sanction Schiller for the Williams debacle by stripping her of her 2010 bonus.

In fact, the reasons behind Schiller's ultimatum to Weiss were more complex.

An internal investigation launched by NPR's board in the wake of the Williams affair broadened into questions about Weiss's command of the newsroom. While several employees acknowledged her role in building NPR into a radio-news powerhouse and emerging digital-news player, they also questioned her methods.

More than a dozen NPR employees, including some of its well-known hosts, aired long-standing grievances to investigators about Weiss's management style, particularly the way she had carried out a series of layoffs and terminations in 2008. Weiss's decision to fire Williams without benefit of a face-to-face meeting sounded familiar to those who recounted similar episodes, according to people who spoke with the investigating team.

More damning was the suggestion - hotly disputed by people close to Weiss - that Weiss had preempted her boss, Schiller, in telling Williams that he had to go.

All sides agree that the events of Oct. 20, two days after Williams said he was "nervous" flying with fellow passengers in "Muslim garb," were fast-moving and somewhat muddled. Weiss and other managers were at NPR's offices in Washington; Schiller was in Atlanta, preparing to make a speech. She was available only intermittently via cellphone. One top-level manager at NPR describes a day that was "extremely rushed. There was confusion and miscommunication."

Conflicting timelines

In reconstructing the events surrounding Williams's dismissal, Schiller and Weiss each provided a timeline of events to the lawyers hired for the review - an accounting of what happened when. What the investigators found was puzzling: Weiss's recollection of the chronology of the episode differed from Schiller's, according to one official familiar with the investigation. Specifically, Weiss had already fired Williams before Schiller had definitively signed off on it, according to this official.

"The e-mail traffic supported Vivian's timeline," the board member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the board's deliberations are considered secret. "Clearly, Ellen's remembrance of events were at considerable variance with Vivian's."

Weiss declined to talk in detail about the circumstances of the firing or her parting. However, she offered a brief statement: "If it seemed sudden, that's because it was sudden. I had one conversation with Vivian and announced my resignation" on Jan. 6.

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