Ellen Weiss Out at NPR (Juan Williams Aftereffects)

A news professional pays the price for a political imbroglio

In the heat of the Juan Williams episode last October, I argued here that while the NPR leadership had made a mistake in its huffy-seeming dismissal of Williams, it was important to separate criticism of that tactical error from a broader, politically motivated attack on the larger journalistic enterprise that NPR represents. Heart of the argument (which of course I invite you to read in its full splendor):

>>NPR, whatever its failings, is one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization. When people talk about the "decline of the press," in practice they mean that fewer and fewer newspapers, news magazine, and broadcast networks can afford to try to gather information....

Who is left? The New York Times, for one. The Wall Street Journal, with a different emphasis; increasingly Bloomberg, also with a specialized outlook. The BBC. CNN, now under pressure. Maybe one or two others -- which definitely include NPR. 

It has reporters at state houses and in war zones. At last count, it has something like 17 foreign bureaus and 16 domestic. In much of the country, especially away from the coasts, it's a major source of local information and news.<<

Two reasons for returning to this question:

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1) Today, after an outside investigative group released its findings of NPR's handling of the Williams case, NPR announced the (obviously forced) resignation of the head of its news division, Ellen Weiss -- at left, in NPR photo. Vivian Schiller, head of NPR, received a vote of confidence but "no bonus" because of the Williams episode.

I have been introduced to Ellen Weiss once or twice but don't know her as a friend or even an acquaintance. But I certainly know her by reputation both inside and outside the NPR organization. Whatever is admirable about NPR's news ambitions and standards -- and to my mind, quite a lot is admirable -- is to a meaningful degree a reflection of Weiss's own ambitions and standards. She has been at NPR since the early 1980s and has held most of the significant news-planning jobs there: executive producer of All Things Considered for more than a decade; then head of NPR's National Desk for five years, where she supervised its reporters; and since early 2007 the senior vice president for all news operations. It is common knowledge within NPR that when the network was deciding who should fill the senior news job four years ago, some 90% of news staff members on air reporters, more than 100 people in all, signed a petition recommending that Weiss be chosen -- as she was. Details here.

Is letting her go, for one episode (with Williams), any worse than letting Williams go for one comment on Fox News (that he got nervous when people in "Muslim garb" got on an airplane)? Structurally they might seem the same. But NPR's day-after explanation about Williams was that this was the culmination of years-long disagreements with him about his role as a Fox commentator. I know nothing first-hand about the merits of that explanation; but its essence is different from Weiss's situation, in which one instance of misjudgment appears to trump her reputation and achievement over the decades. I am sorry for her and for NPR -- and for the likelihood that in the politicized battle over the meaning of "news" I wrote about originally, she will be presented on the Fox side as a "liberal" scalp collected in atonement for Williams's. That's political reductionism, of which we have so much these days, when we need more people who, like Weiss, have been trying hard to send explanatory reportorial probes out into the world. [For the record: I've had outside roles as a commentator or analyst on NPR shows over the years, never as a staff member.]

2. As I mentioned in another post, "public radio" and NPR are not the same things. After the jump, a note from the executive producer of a news program in Wisconsin on the significance of that distinction.Steve Paulson, the executive producer of "To the Best of Our Knowledge" on Wisconsin Public Radio, writes today, in response to my earlier Williams/NPR post:

>>There's one important detail you miss.  And I say this as someone who works at Wisconsin Public Radio and produces a national program that's syndicated by Public Radio International.


You've made the common mistake of conflating NPR with all of public radio.  I know "NPR" has become shorthand for what happens in public radio, but it's really not the same, and the differences matter.   Yes, NPR produces the flagship news programs on public radio - and the Juan Williams controversy is very much an NPR matter (though the impact has affected all of us) - but much of what's heard on public radio comes from public radio stations around the country.  I'm not a numbers expert, but  I'm guessing those 27 million listeners around the country are the total number of listeners on public radio stations - not just listeners to NPR-produced shows.   And the state capitol reporting comes mainly from local affiliates, not NPR staffers, though some of these news stories are heard on NPR shows.


Why do these distinctions matter?  Because NPR controls a certain piece of what's heard on public radio stations, but has little influence on what's locally programmed.  Likewise, the local stations have no say in certain key decisions made by NPR - for instance, the firing of Juan Williams.  And more important, the financial well-being of local stations is determined by the stations themselves, not by NPR.  For stations like Wisconsin Public Radio, which is licensed to both the University of Wisconsin and a state government agency, budget decisions made at the state level are at least as important as decisions made by NPR.  Obviously, this carries its own set of political considerations. 


The glory - and the messiness - of public radio comes in large part from the many legs which support it.  To put it simply, public radio is not simply a creature of Washington, D.C.<<