By Paul Farhi
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.
She added that she received no warnings that her job was in jeopardy and no explanations from Schiller about why she was asked to leave. "I have not had that conversation," she said. "No one at NPR has ever discussed it with me."
Schiller has repeatedly declined to speak about Weiss's departure, calling it a private personnel matter. NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm would only say: "Ellen resigned from her position. It would be inappropriate for us to comment publicly on internal conversations."
People close to Weiss dispute the notion that she is to blame for withholding any relevant information from Schiller or for acting without Schiller's consent. They point out that Williams's dual roles as an NPR analyst and Fox commentator had been an issue inside NPR for three years or so and that Schiller had taken part in discussions about his status for more than a year before Weiss fired him.
Well before Williams's fateful appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," in fact, NPR's managers had decided not to renew his contract when it was set to expire March 31. Schiller agreed, according to these staffers.
"If Vivian wanted more consulting [on Oct. 20], she would have and should have said so," said one person close to the situation. Blaming Weiss, this person said, was merely a smoke screen that helped Schiller keep her job and appease critics inside and outside NPR.
The real mistake, several NPR staffers interviewed for this article said, was an assumption shared by Schiller, Weiss and the rest of NPR's leadership: Releasing Williams would not turn into a public-relations disaster. It quickly did, as Bill O'Reilly and others on Fox News began an almost nonstop barrage against NPR for what they saw as an attempt to suppress free speech and enforce a "liberal" orthodoxy.Mixed reactions
Inside NPR, Weiss's sudden departure caused mixed reactions. While some saw it as capitulation to outside pressure, others were privately joyful. They viewed Weiss's tenure as divisive and questioned her judgment on several fronts, especially her personnel decisions.
Some of the hard feelings toward Weiss in NPR's newsroom sprang from a bruising cutback in December 2008, the first employee layoffs at NPR in 25 years. NPR eliminated 64 jobs and wiped out three programs in a move designed to close a $23 million budget gap. Some of NPR's most-seasoned journalists were let go, including hosts Alex Chadwick and Jacki Lyden, correspondents John McChesney and Elaine Korry and editor Marcus Rosenbaum. (Lyden was later restored to part-time status.)
Chadwick, who worked at NPR for almost 30 years (and had hired Weiss as a newsroom temp in 1981), thought Weiss had used the cost-cutting directive as an excuse to purge her critics.
He was especially incensed at the way she informed him that his job was being cut: via a phone call while Chadwick was in the middle of an appointment with his wife's cancer specialist. Carolyn Jensen Chadwick,who died last year from the disease, had been a longtime editor at NPR when her job was eliminated by Weiss a few years earlier.
According to Chadwick's cellphone log, Weiss called to fire him from his wife's old office at NPR. "That was just a dagger to the heart," he said.
Weiss incurred resentment, too, from NPR's minority journalists, who had long questioned the organization's commitment to a diverse newsroom. She won no friends in this group by canceling "News and Notes," a daily program about African American culture and personalities, during the 2008 cuts. She also eliminated the job of Doug Mitchell, who had been running an in-house development program for young journalists that brought several promising minority staffers to NPR.
The minority issue would factor into the discussion among NPR's managers about Williams. Given that Williams was the only African American man regularly heard on NPR's flagship news programs, Schiller, Weiss and others inside the organization were sensitive about moving too quickly to oust him, lest the action be interpreted as racially insensitive.
"Do I think NPR kept Williams on for years, as the relationship degraded, because he is a black man? Absolutely," wrote Farai Chideya, a former host of "News and Notes," in the Huffington Post after Williams's firing. "Williams' presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network. NPR needs to hire more black men in house on staff as part of adding diverse staff across many ethnicities and races."
Weiss appeared to understand that. Before her ouster, she supported the hiring of a new vice president for diversity in news, Keith Woods, and two new staff positions dedicated to reporting news about minority communities.