Amid a debate over federal funding, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller used the National Press Club stage Monday to try to focus attention on the public radio network’s value and finally to move past the controversy over the firing of Juan Williams. Today, she is out following another staff-related controversy, abruptly ending a two-year term dotted with considerable success with NPR in the news once again for all the wrong reasons.
The NPR board announced Schiller’s resignation this morning, a day after a video “sting” of chief fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) hit. In the surreptitious video of him talking to two purported Muslim donors, who were fakes, Ron Schiller said federal funding shouldn’t be needed for public radio and called some Tea Party supporters “seriously racist, racist people.” Ron Schiller also admitted the importance of federal funding and refused a (fake) $5 million donation from the pair. He had already announced that he was leaving NPR for another job in May; his resignation was made effective immediately.
Vivian Schiller hung on with just the loss of a bonus after the board inquiry of how Juan Williams was fired; top news exec Ellen Weiss resigned following the review. But the aftereffects of the Williams’ firing lingered. Monday, after a speech with stirring examples of NOR news coverage, Schiller was peppered with questions about Williams — and conservative political activist/video con man (or sting “artist”, as some like to call him), James O’Keefe has said he went after NPR because of Williams. The commentator has been at Fox News with a higher salary since the firing.
From the NPR board: Board Chairman Dave Edwards said, “The Board accepted Vivian’s resignation with understanding, genuine regret and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.”
According to a CEO succession plan in place since 2009, Joyce Slocum, SVP of Legal Affairs and General Counsel, will be Interim CEO during the search process.
Update: Vivian Schiller offered her resignation last night and the board accepted. She told the NYT , “I’m hopeful that my departure from NPR will have the intended effect of easing the defunding pressure on public broadcasting.” Edwards described the decision as difficult both for her and the board, noting her leadership during tough economic times and in reframing NPR for today’s media landscape. She also wasn’t personally responsible for many of the mistakes — but, as Edwards and Schiller both note, being a CEO means taking responsibility.
Will her departure lessen the pressure on federal funding – a relatively small but significant (vital in some cases) contribution to NPR and its member stations — or change any attitudes towards “liberal” NPR? To use a favorite quote from Elaine May, “Information cannot argue with a closed mind.” The people who didn’t like NPR yesterday won’t like it any better post-Vivian Schiller. She didn’t create the aura of NPR as an ideological counterweight to Fox — although she did emphasize it as an intellectual counterweight to shallow coverage by any news organization — and those who see it as diametrically opposed to conservatives won’t change their minds because she’s gone.
But if Edwards and the NPR board aren’t careful, her departure could well derail many of the efforts either started or championed by Vivian Schiller — multi-platform growth and access, NPR-supported increased local, state and regional coverage, international coverage, the emphasis on multiple revenue streams, and more. NPR made some great strides over the past two years; its future shouldn’t be hobbled by missteps.
Disclosure: Over years of coverage during her tenure at the NYT and then at NPR, I’ve grown to know and like Vivian Schiller. I’ve also covered NPR for years, been a listener for longer and occasionally appear on shows that it syndicates. Personally, I wish this had turned out differently for all.