Wicked Weiss? WaPo Reports NPR Boss Fired Her Mentor During Wife's Cancer-Specialist Appointment

Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi dug deep into the Juan Williams firing investigation at National Public Radio on Friday, and found that the woman who fired him, senior vice president Ellen Weiss (who later was also dismissed), drew resentment inside NPR for a set of layoffs in 2008, including the man who started her NPR career, Alex Chadwick. He says she laid him off as he was in the middle of his wife's appointment with a cancer specialist:

Chadwick, who worked at NPR for almost 30 years (and had hired Weiss as a newsroom temp in 1981), thought Weiss had used the cost-cutting directive as an excuse to purge her critics.

He was especially incensed at the way she informed him that his job was being cut: via a phone call while Chadwick was in the middle of an appointment with his wife's cancer specialist. Carolyn Jensen Chadwick, who died last year from the disease, had been a longtime editor at NPR when her job was eliminated by Weiss a few years earlier.

According to Chadwick's cellphone log, Weiss called to fire him from his wife's old office at NPR. "That was just a dagger to the heart," he said.

The Williams firing shook loose resentment against Weiss inside NPR:

An internal investigation launched by NPR's board in the wake of the Williams affair broadened into questions about Weiss's command of the newsroom. While several employees acknowledged her role in building NPR into a radio-news powerhouse and emerging digital-news player, they also questioned her methods.

More than a dozen NPR employees, including some of its well-known hosts, aired long-standing grievances to investigators about Weiss's management style, particularly the way she had carried out a series of layoffs and terminations in 2008. Weiss's decision to fire Williams without benefit of a face-to-face meeting sounded familiar to those who recounted similar episodes, according to people who spoke with the investigating team.

More damning was the suggestion - hotly disputed by people close to Weiss - that Weiss had preempted her boss, [NPR CEO] Vivian] Schiller, in telling Williams that he had to go.

All sides agree that the events of Oct. 20, two days after Williams said he was "nervous" flying with fellow passengers in "Muslim garb," were fast-moving and somewhat muddled. Weiss and other managers were at NPR's offices in Washington; Schiller was in Atlanta, preparing to make a speech. She was available only intermittently via cellphone. One top-level manager at NPR describes a day that was "extremely rushed. There was confusion and miscommunication."

Investigators found that evidence undelined that Schiller's timeline of the Williams firing was more reliable than the memory of Ellen Weiss. Farhi added that Weiss also infuriated minorites inside NPR:

Weiss incurred resentment, too, from NPR's minority journalists, who had long questioned the organization's commitment to a diverse newsroom. She won no friends in this group by canceling "News and Notes," a daily program about African American culture and personalities, during the 2008 cuts. She also eliminated the job of Doug Mitchell, who had been running an in-house development program for young journalists that brought several promising minority staffers to NPR.

The minority issue would factor into the discussion among NPR's managers about Williams. Given that Williams was the only African American man regularly heard on NPR's flagship news programs, Schiller, Weiss and others inside the organization were sensitive about moving too quickly to oust him, lest the action be interpreted as racially insensitive.

"Do I think NPR kept Williams on for years, as the relationship degraded, because he is a black man? Absolutely," wrote Farai Chideya, a former host of "News and Notes," in the Huffington Post after Williams's firing. "Williams' presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network. NPR needs to hire more black men in house on staff as part of adding diverse staff across many ethnicities and races."

Weiss appeared to understand that. Before her ouster, she supported the hiring of a new vice president for diversity in news, Keith Woods, and two new staff positions dedicated to reporting news about minority communities.

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