After another bad public-relations moment (following the Juan Williams controversy last fall) in the midst of a federal-funding battle, NPR’s board has ousted CEO Vivian Schiller, according to NPR’s own media reporter. The move follows on the release of an embarassing, unfelicitously-timed sting video in which NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) met with members of a fictitious Muslim advocacy group and was recorded saying that the Republican Party had been hijacked by a “racist” Tea Party.
David Folkenflik of NPR—who has done an outstanding, evenhanded job of covering his own network’s controversies, even in the eyes of conservative critic Andrew Breitbart—this morning broke the news on Twitter that Schiller resigned at the behest of the NPR News board.
The move looks like NPR offering a sacrifice in the name of putting a quick end to the controversy, which comes as Republicans in Congress are calling for an end to all federal funds for public broadcasting. (Whether that’s actually likely to pass the Senate is another matter, as a cutoff would hurt red states—whose small TV and radio stations would be decimated—far more than the better-funded urban blue-state bastions of NPR and PBS. But that’s for another post.)
The irony is that the board would get rid of CEO Schiller over an incident she hardly could have prevented—off-the-cuff personal opinions offered by an executive at a meeting he thought was private—while it kept her after the Williams affair, in which she was much more active. When NPR cut ties with Williams (when he said on Fox News that he was nervous seeing airplane passengers in “Muslim garb”), Schiller not only took a hands-on role in his firing but threw gas on the flames with her public remarks: for instance, that Williams should have saved his opinions for “his psychiatrist or his publicist.”
Whether you think she was right or wrong, and NPR right or wrong in its treatment of Williams, if the NPR board is acting out of public-relations concerns, that was the far greater p.r. misstep. Of course, at the time, it was widely thought that NPR was acting on a longstanding concern over Williams’ past work as an opinionator for Fox.
This time it’s Schiller who’s apparently being punished not so much for the current incident as for the pattern. (Ron Schiller was also terminated by NPR, though the move was more of a gesture than anything, as he had already taken another job, apparently prior and unrelated to the scandal.) The question is whether the ouster ends the controversy or—like so many such firings—only emboldens critics and enflames it more.