NPR executive Vivian Schiller resigns under pressure from board and CPB
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 12:55 AM
NPR lost its chief executive Wednesday, a day after the news organization was embarrassed by a secretly recorded video that caught one of its top managers calling Republicans "anti-intellectual" and tea party members "racists."
Vivian Schiller, NPR's top officer, was forced out of her job after two years, just as a Republican-held Congress has accelerated the debate on cutting funds for public broadcasting.
Schiller officially resigned, but there was little doubt she was ousted under pressure from NPR's board and officials from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the organization that acts as Congress's liaison in distributing about $430 million a year to public radio and television stations.
Schiller announced she is leaving only about 24 hours after a video surfaced on the Internet with comments by NPR's top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian Schiller), made during a luncheon meeting with two men who posed as wealthy donors from a Muslim charity. During the meeting, which was recorded by James O'Keefe, a well-known conservative provocateur, Schiller disparaged Republicans as "anti-intellectual" and tea party members as racists and xenophobes. He also suggested that Jews control the nation's newspapers and that NPR would be better off without its federal subsidy.
Despite distancing herself from the comments, Vivian Schiller accepted a late-night ultimatum from NPR's board chairman, Dave Edwards, that she quit, according to people familiar with the matter.
NPR's directors, CPB officials and lobbyists for public broadcasting interests were concerned that Schiller's continued presence at NPR in the wake of the video would almost certainly have a catastrophic effect on the debate in Congress over funding for public radio and TV stations. "The idea was to placate the Hill," said one person involved in the decision. "They needed a human sacrifice."
Schiller, in an interview Wednesday, acknowledged as much. "The organization is under a tremendous amount of pressure because of the defunding threat," she said.
The video flap was the second major embarrassment for NPR in less than six months. In October, the Washington-based organization fired commentator Juan Williams after he expressed his fears of flying with people wearing "Muslim garb." Conservatives decried NPR's "liberal bigotry." Within days, a bill introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) to defund public broadcasting began to gain traction.
The stunning series of public gaffes comes at a time when NPR is otherwise performing admirably. Its array of news and discussion programs - from "All Things Considered" to "Car Talk" and "The Diane Rehm Show" - reached a combined weekly audience of 27 million listeners. Under Schiller, NPR has also expanded its online operations, with a popular news Web site, NPR.org, and an influential musical site, NPRmusic.org.
The recent incidents - Williams's firing and the video - gave comfort to the two factions that have long opposed public broadcasting. Cultural conservatives have always regarded NPR and PBS as smug, effete and liberal. Fiscal conservatives say funding public broadcasting is unjustifiable in an age of soaring deficits.
"Our concern is not about any one person at NPR, rather it's about millions of taxpayers," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) after Schiller's resignation on Wednesday. "NPR has admitted that they don't need taxpayer subsidies to thrive . . . [and] we certainly agree with them."
It is unclear whether Schiller's departure will change any minds in the public broadcasting debate. The White House said Wednesday that it remained committed to supporting the funding, with President Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, emphasizing that it is "important."