Three Strikes at NPR: Why Vivian Schiller Was Ousted

The forced resignation of NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller is by any measure a very sad ending to what was until a few months ago a superbly successful tenure. Three management mishaps made her departure inevitable: the abrupt dismissal of Juan Williams, NPR's most prominent African-American on-air personality, for inept comments he made as a contributor to Fox News; the equally precipitous firing of Ellen Weiss, NPR's top news executive for her role in the Williams case; and finally, the astounding blunder of NPR's outgoing development director in a right-wing sting that made him and the enterprise he still represented look like a caricature of the elite enclave its congressional critics say it is.

The irony is that, on the air, NPR and its vast network of station affiliates have never been so strong. The most recent official statistics report that 34 million people are monthly public radio listeners, and more than 26 million specifically choose NPR programming. In every passing year, the stature of NPR as one of this country's most influential and respected news organizations has grown. With a Washington bureau that covers beats as diverse as religion, food safety and race,17  foreign bureaus as far afield as South Asia and Africa, and regional correspondents in places like Tucson and Salt Lake City, NPR is unquestionably a national asset, an outstanding example of collaboration among local and national journalists at a time when so much of the news universe has been diminished by economics and vulgarity.

Drop-down bar thumbnail credit: AP Photo

Schiller came to NPR in 2009 from a strong background, including the leadership of nytimes.com. Her predecessor, Kenneth Stern, was ousted by the board for what were said to be unnecessary tensions with local stations over the development of a digital strategy, a reflection of the continuing tenuous balance between the national hub and its far-flung affiliates. From all accounts, Schiller was well along to redressing those tensions when the crisis that brought her down began with the termination of Williams's contract. The return of the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives and near parity in the Senate reopened the periodic drive to eliminate federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which in turn makes grants to stations, which use the monies to pay subscription fees to NPR and other public radio distributors like Public Radio International and American Public Media for programs such as Prairie Home Companion, Marketplace and This American Life. But NPR remains the dominant presence, for better or worse, in political and popular perceptions of public radio. And GOP calls for zeroing out of CPB grants have gained momentum and actually passed in the House.

That is why the accumulation of what were widely seen as management mistakes is so disturbing. Vivian Schiller was an excellent executive who may have been spread too thin, particularly in the view of some NPR insiders, placing too much emphasis on a digital expansion that, while growing, remained less essential to the core of the programming than what was broadcast over the air. But in the way that counted most, Schiller really understood NPR's role in national life.

In what turned out to be her swan song, she delivered a stirring speech at the National Press Club on Monday with this message: "NPR's audience is not a left and right coast phenomenon. We are urban and rural: North and South; red state and blue state. Our listeners are equally distributed throughout every part of America -- because of our unique network of local member stations. Rooted in their communities, locally owned, operated and staffed. These are citizens serving citizens." Schiller recognized that NPR faced implacable opponents who needed to be answered: "At a time when our industry is cutting back, when punditry is drowning real news and thoughtful analysis, NPR is moving continuously forward with quality reporting and storytelling delivered with respect for the audience.... As guardians of the public trust, we have an obligation to address the current crisis in journalism and not simply fall victim to the turbulence of these times."

Vivian Schiller has now succumbed to that turbulence, brought down by a right-wing prankster who outwitted NPR's chief fundraiser, who should have known better. Why didn't he simply Google the group, which had a fake website? The loss of Schiller will hurt NPR in the short-term, and so will the all but certain cuts in CPB grants to stations, but public radio has faced periodic crises in its 40-year history, and I believe it will get through this one. Meanwhile, the audience it serves has been growing, and they are not the people who were responsible for mistakes in NPR's executive suite. They should not therefore be the ones who are punished.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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