Another View of Juan Williams, Ellen Weiss, and NPR

By James Fallows
Yesterday I mentioned that Ellen Weiss, an NPR veteran who in recent years has been its news director, was taking the fall for the rash dismissal of Juan Williams. I made the case for Weiss (whom I don't know personally), saying that misjudgment in one episode was apparently being allowed to trump what she had achieved over the decades.

Since then I have received a lot of response from the public radio diaspora, most of it saying: right on! But there is a minority view that, for fairness, I should quote -- especially since one person who has expressed it is willing to be quoted by name. The note below is from John Dinges, previously an NPR news official himself and now a professor at the Columbia Journalism school.

I don't intend to get into back-and-forth about the personal virtues and failings of Weiss -- or Williams, or Dinges, or me, or anyone else. Being a news executive is like being a manager of any sort, in that inevitably you make choices -- budget, promotion, hiring, firing -- that please some people and disappoint or infuriate others. I know people who still resent choices I made years ago in my news-manager career. So inevitably Ellen Weiss will have critics. But Dinges's note makes a larger point about NPR. He writes:
>>Glad you are weighing in on the Williams-Weiss saga.

You quoted a station person extensively, saying that the 27 million NPR listeners conflates station audience as well as listeners to NPR programs. It is important to clarify that he is mistaken.

NPR programs have 27.5 million just in themselves. If you expand the numbers to include listeners to all NPR member stations, the total listenership rises to 32 million.

Those are 2008 numbers released by NPR. Here's the link and an excerpt:
"March 24, 2009; Washington, D.C. - Following an unprecedented year in news dominated by the presidential election and global economic crisis, listening to NPR programming on NPR Member stations reached new highs according to just-released Arbitron ratings for Fall 2008*. NPR programming now reaches 27.5 million listeners weekly, representing 7% year over year growth. Total listening to NPR stations grew by 6 percent to reach a high of 32.7 million listeners weekly. Many individual stations also posted record high audiences during this ratings period."...
You would get another million, maybe, if you include public radio stations who are not part of the NPR network--for example the community stations and the Pacifica Network of five stations.

It is definitely NPR News that has been the engine of audience growth. Public Radio stations that don't broadcast NPR news programs have minuscule audiences.

The growth of NPR in audience and as a news organization has been steady, and is definitely a shared credit going back to the original push to become "mainstream media" when Bill Buzenberg became VP for News in 1990 ( I was his managing editor for news). Listenership was above 20 million by the time he and I left in 1996.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, formerly of CBC, and Bruce Drake, a former print guy, continued the steady growth in audience and staff quality.... Ellen Weiss didn't change course, but neither did she make a extraordinary contribution to that growth in quality, compared to her predecessors. Audience has actually flattened since 2008. Vivian Schiller, on the other hand, has been much more a factor for innovation in recent years, making NPR an important online journalism presence for the first time.

Ellen made a serious error in judgment that has been very destructive to NPR. She has taken responsibility and resigned and for that I respect her. The board, by not clarifying what the errors in judgment were (other than to say she acted hastily), has left wide open the possible interpretation that this was another exercise in political correctness. (PC to fire Williams for anti-muslim comment; PC to fire Weiss for firing a black man.) Political correctness is the Third Rail at NPR. It ties the place in knots over and over again.

My hope is that a real search will be made for a first-rate journalist who has the stature to lead one of the top news organizations in the country (as you pointed out). NPR needs someone of stature in the news business, someone who would have competed for Bill Keller's job at the New York Times. A Steve Coll, perhaps. Someone who can be a force in journalism in these revolutionary times.<<
The case so many people at NPR make for Ellen Weiss -- after all, 90% of them* on-air reporters signed a letter urging her selection as news director -- is that she understands and defends the standards and news-culture of their organization. [*Update: the letter was not from the entire 400 person newsroom but the 100 or so on-air reporting staff.] The case that Dinges and others have made is that NPR needs someone from outside that culture. This is the eternal debate about any institution, and I don't know enough to have a refined view of it in this case. Any organization can be improved, but NPR's news culture seems impressive enough that it should not lightly be tampered with. But for the record, this is the other side of the argument.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/01/another-view-of-juan-williams-ellen-weiss-and-npr/69109/