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.”
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.”
Vivian Schiller’s sudden departure came a few hours after Ron Schiller resigned and about two months after Vivian Schiller pushed out her top news manager, Ellen Weiss, after a review of Weiss’s role in the Juan Williams episode. The tumult has left staffers at Washington-based NPR “shellshocked,” as one newsroom employee put it Wednesday.
NPR “is a wounded animal,” said Alicia Shepard, the organization’s ombudsman, or in-house critic.
Vivian Schiller joined NPR from the New York Times Co. in early 2009, just a few weeks after NPR cut about 7 percent of its staff, or 64 positions. At the time, NPR said it was running $23 million in the red.
She reorganized NPR’s management (hiring Ron Schiller, among others), beefed up digital newsgathering and worked to repair the organization’s sometimes strained relationships with its affiliated stations, which pay for and air the programs that NPR produces. With cost controls and a somewhat improved economy, she helped put NPR in the black. “I think she did an amazing job in the two years she was here,” said Shepard, who is is employed by NPR to offer impartial criticism.
After the damaging video circulated Tuesday, it was clear to the board that Schiller had to go, said Edwards, its chairman. “Vivian was not responsible for the many mistakes that were made, but the CEO of any organization is accountable for anything that emerges,” he said during a morning news conference. “We determined that it was a wise decision to accept her resignation and move on.”
Public TV and radio stations receive — on average — about 15 percent of their annual operating budgets from Congress (the balance comes from state funds, viewer and listener donations and corporate sponsors). But that’s on average: Stations in large urban areas, such as WETA-TV in Arlington and WAMU-FM in Washington, receive far less than 15 percent, while those in some rural areas receive as much as half their operating funds from Washington.
“If funding is eliminated entirely, there are going to be a number of stations that will be hard-pressed to stay on the air,” said Paula Kerger, the president of PBS. “States are cutting back, too. This is not an easy time.”
NPR’s public stumbles may have hurt the organization, but they may not have a decisive effect on the funding fight in Washington this year, said Pat Butler, the chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations, which lobbies for federal money.
“As far as I can see, no one has changed his or her mind” as result of Vivian Schiller’s resignation, he said. “The people who were for us are still for us, and the people who were against us are still against us. I still feel pretty good about our prospects.”
Butler said he believes that public broadcasters have support from 10 Republican senators, whom he didn’t identify, along with the Democratic majority. “In the end, I think we’ll have a good bipartisan majority. The public likes public broadcasting. It’s like apple pie.”