Wednesday, March 09, 2011

In wake of Ron Schiller "scandal," NPR CEO Vivian Schiller resigns

As reported by NPR itself:

Vivian Schiller, NPR's CEO and president since January 2009, left that job today in the wake of the second high-profile controversy to hit the organization in the past six months.

Dave Edwards, chairman of NPR's board, said directors came to the conclusion that the controversies under Schiller's watch had become such a distraction that she could no longer effectively lead the organization. She had told the directors that they should take the action they felt was appropriate, and Edwards said the board decided it would be best for her to depart.

The controversies in recent months that led to Schiller's departure have given NPR's critics opportunities to accuse it of liberal bias and to push for elimination of any federal funding for public broadcasting:

— Tuesday, a videotape surfaced of then-NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) slamming conservatives and questioning whether NPR needs federal funding. His comments were secretly recorded by men posing as members of a Muslim organization (they were working with political activist James O'Keefe on a "sting").

— Last fall, NPR dismissed news analyst Juan Williams after he said on Fox News Channel (where he was also a paid contributor) that he gets nervous when he sees people in "Muslim garb" on an airplane. Williams went on to say it's wrong to profile or sterotype anyone based on their appearance, but NPR said it was the latest in a series of comments he had made that violated NPR's standards. The handling of his dismissal and the controversy surrounding it ultimately led to the resignation of NPR's top news executive at the time, Ellen Weiss.

I was deeply critical yesterday of NPR's handling of the Ron Schiller "scandal" -- in quotation marks because it really wasn't much of a scandal. Schiller spoke openly, perhaps a bit too openly, got snagged in a right-wing sting, and the organization, embarrassed and terrified of being seen as politically partisan, responded with utter cowardice, pushing Schiller out the door, calling what he said "appalling," without any consideration of context or accuracy, and giving NPR critics on the right a high-profile victory, all while feeding the double standard that treats liberals differently than conservatives. Because, really, you think anyone at Fox News would be forced out for saying such things? They do all the time, and to applause and encouragement.

And yet today it was the other Schiller's turn -- no, there's no relation -- to take the heat. Again, I was deeply critical of Vivian self-flaggellating response to Ron's remarks, but how is it that these two "controversies" were enough to bring her down? Firing Juan Williams for saying stupid and bigoted things about Muslims (admitting, that is, that he's a bigot, or at least that he views Muslims differently than others and sees them, without regard for nuance, as possible terrorists)? And then pushing Ron out the door for saying irresponsible things, at worst (particularly with respect to corporate policy on federal funding), to prospective donors?

That's it?

I don't really know enough about Vivian's performance as CEO to say whether she should or should not be in the position, but NPR itself acknowledges that she was fired largely because of these two "controversies," and I just don't seem as amounting to all that much. Fire her for poor leadership, fine, if in fact her leadership has been poor, but for this?

Again, it's a double standard, a self-imposed one, perhaps, but one that reflects broadly how conservatives, in the media and elsewhere, are treated differently.

Another way of putting that is that conservatives are generally held to lower standards (and hold themselves to lower standards) than liberals. I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with liberals maintaining high standards for themselves, but at some point the difference is just too much, not least when the standards aren't self-imposed but rather imposed by the "culture," and particularly by a media establishment that all too often gives conservatives a free pass for offences much worse than anything Schiller said. (Again, just watch Fox News. How many such offences are you likely to encounter on any given day? Could you even count all the examples of partisanship, all the expressions of bigotry?)

It may be tempting to views the events the past couple of days as inside-NPR matters. But they aren't just that. Instead, they're reflections of a broader and deeper problem facing liberals in the media, in politics, in business, anywhere, indeed, of the problem facing anyone who isn't on the right and therefore who isn't given that free pass. In dealing with Ron Schiller, NPR acted with cowardice. It acted pathetically. And in forcing Vivian Schiller out, it only made the problem that much worse, and that much more apparent, feeding NPR's own rabid critics on the right with yet more evidence that it, and we, can be pushed around. Once more, we see that it is the right that drives the narrative, along with a willing media establishment, and that the left caves without much of a fight.


As for Juan Williams, the fact that he's now accusing NPR of racism over his firing shows just how utterly self-serving he is, and always has been. He's a terrible pundit (who's found the perfect home at Fox News, where he can play the loser on the left), and NPR was right to rid itself of him, even if it should have fired him for general incompetence, not for those specific anti-Muslim remarks.


For a defence of Ron Schiller, see Slate's Jack Shafer, who notes that Schiller was just acting like a good fundraiser. I defend him on different grounds. What he said really wasn't all that controversial. Partisan, yes, but not wrong.


It's such a huge controversy, apparently, that Schiller won't be joining the Aspen Institute as planned. Ridiculous.

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  • The controversies in recent months that led to Schiller's departure have given NPR's critics opportunities to accuse it of liberal bias and to push for elimination of any federal funding for public broadcasting:

    I don't like FOX news, but if NPR gets federal funding I guess that they can't do that kind of comments. FOX news does have other sources of income

    By Anonymous Gabriel, at 10:37 AM  

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