NPR Anchor Denounces Juan Williams Firing as 'Incredibly Sloppy, Messy, and Often Embarrassing'

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik reported on NPR’s internal review of the Juan Williams firing and the coinciding resignation of senior vice president Ellen Weiss on both Thursday’s night’s All Things Considered and Friday’s Morning Edition. Both stories were strictly limited to soundbites from NPR officials and in each story, one soundbite from Williams reacting on Fox News.

Perhaps due to this sterile, defensive soundbite list, NPR was slapping themselves on the wrists. Folkenflik said Weiss’s depature was a “startling fall,” but on Morning Edition, evening anchor Robert Siegel said “the logic was clear.”

"It doesn't surprise me that somebody was going to go, after the incredibly sloppy, messy and often embarrassing severance of Juan Williams," Siegel said. “I don’t think Ellen’s leaving is a measure of her work over the years. It was this one, very poorly handled [move].”

Siegel's “logic” in this case is political and public-relations logic – that NPR needed to punish someone before Republicans came to cut budgets. You certainly didn't hear NPR anchors say this on air last fall.

"I think we all know that the termination [of Williams] was not handled in the best possible way," newly elected NPR Board Chairman Dave Edwards, the general manager of NPR affiliate WUWM in Milwaukee, said in the story. "Management has previously acknowledged that fact — they've admitted the fact that it was done hastily. I think we all know that that contributed to a lot of the misunderstandings and criticisms of NPR."

One can easily guess that Edwards is saying that both the "misunderstandings" and the "criticisms" are that NPR is a left-wing sandbox intolerant of views that lean anywhere close to the right, especially when NPR personnel sound too conservative for the leftish NPR listener "base" as they cause liberal indigestion merely by appearing on Fox News.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller also spoke in both stories, hoping NPR listeners would feel their pain: "This has been a very difficult episode for everyone involved at NPR and at our public radio stations, and I regret the impact it's had," she said. Folkenflik’s stories noted that Schiller was punished by not getting her annual bonus, but he didn’t note what the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported on Friday. NPR isn’t exactly a model of financial transparency, even when they thrust themselves into the spotlight:

In an interview Thursday, Schiller said she "fully accepted" the board's decision to cancel her bonus, which she said had not been determined for the current fiscal year. (Schiller could not recall the amount of her bonus in fiscal 2009, and NPR said it did not have that information.)

This is a good example of where House and Senate Republicans can press Schiller: if her bonus was $100, then revoking it is no punishment. If it was many thousands of dollars, they could find the bonus excessive like a TARP-subsidized banker's. But to simply "not recall the amount" is lame, indeed. (Farhi did report on conservative Rep. Doug Lamborn insisting this internal exercise meant nothing to his push to defund NPR.)

For her part, Weiss told James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times she still believes the Williams purge was a triumph of journalistic standards:

"What I would say is that the decision to terminate the Juan Williams contract by NPR, of which I was a participant, was based on the highest journalistic standards," Weiss said Thursday.

She said she told staffers that any organization "had to prepare for the loss of the boss."  She added: "If you get hit by a bus, you want to make sure you have the right people in place, you want to make sure it doesn't end," Weiss said. "I feel I have an incredible newsroom in place, with fantastic leadership and unbelievably courageous reporters. I am glad I followed my own advice. Because the bus came, and I am gone."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis