Executives at NPR affiliate stations across the United States have begun publicly voicing discontent in the aftermath of the network’s dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams, with several station managers openly questioning the actions and judgment of NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller.
Some station executives said Williams should not have been fired, while others said the firing should have been more professionally handled. Still others questioned whether NPR is fairly administering its own ethics rules, and suggested Williams was fired purely because he appears on Fox News.
The statements by NPR affiliate managers come in the wake of Schiller’s issuance late Sunday of a written apology to them for her handling of the incident, which has generated more flak for NPR than any other event in the network’s forty-year history of operations.
“While we stand firmly behind that decision” to terminate Williams’s contract, Schiller wrote in an e-mail to affiliate managers, “I regret that we did not take the time to prepare the station community and provide you with the tools to cope with the fallout from this episode. I also regret that this happened when the staff and volunteers of many stations were deeply engaged in pledge drives.”
NPR fired Williams late last Wednesday, forty-eight hours after his most recent appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” with host Bill O’Reilly. The two were discussing the ongoing controversy about plans to build a mosque and cultural center near the September 11 attacks when Williams confided that he gets “nervous” seeing Muslims on the same passenger flights as himself. After NPR fired Williams, Fox News expanded and extended his contract as a contributor to the cable news channel.
In her e-mailed apology Sunday night, Schiller acknowledged that “the process that followed the decision [to fire Williams]…including not meeting with Juan Williams in person,” was “unfortunate,” and added: “I take full responsibility for that.” She disclosed that NPR is conducting a “thorough review of all aspects of our performance in this instance, a process that will continue in the coming days and weeks.”
Among the issues with which Schiller has been confronted in recent days was why NPR has not sought to make any change to the status of other NPR journalists – such as longtime legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg – who, like Williams, have appeared regularly on other TV outlets, freely dispensing opinions. NPR told Fox News late Friday no change was being considered in the status of Totenberg or Mara Liasson, NPR’s national political correspondent, who, like Williams, is also a Fox News contributor.
In telephone interviews with Fox News this week, general managers of several stations affiliated with NPR spoke sharply about Schiller’s performance in the episode. Janet Campbell, general manager at Kansas station KANU, said she did not believe Williams should have been fired at all, and that she “absolutely” saw a double standard at work in the network’s treatment of Williams and Totenberg.
“I think it had to do with the network he was on,” said Campbell, who has served as KANU’s general manager for fifteen years. “I thought it was a knee-jerk reaction. And I was extremely disappointed at [Schiller's] remarks in Atlanta. I thought that was very childish. Someone in charge of such a large organization should know better.”
Speaking at a newsmakers’ luncheon at the Atlanta Press Club on Thursday, when controversy over Williams’s firing was still fresh and reaching a feverish peak in news media circles, Schiller said Williams’s feelings about Muslim airlines passengers should be between him and his “psychiatrist or him and his publicist, take your pick.” Schiller apologized to Williams later that afternoon, calling her remark hasty and “thoughtless.”
“I feel a little bit like the street sweeper at the elephant parade,” said KANU’s Campbell. “I’m getting twenty to forty calls…a lot of people asking me for my budget information. That’s all I’ve done for three days. By the time I got in Monday morning – while I appreciated her apology – I thought it was a little late.”
Steve Lindbeck, president and general manager of Alaska station KSKA, expressed similar sentiments. “It struck me as an overreaction,” he told Fox News from Anchorage. “And then I listened online to his comment in context [on the October 18 edition of "The O'Reilly Factor"]…And it didn’t strike me as [being as] difficult as it originally appeared….That’s a problem, where people occasionally don’t look at the context.” Lindbeck said KSKA exceeded its fundraising goals last week, which saw the Williams controversy coinciding with pledge drives at most NPR stations, but added: “I doubt that it was good [for fundraising]….I don’t think it was the most deft handling of the situation.”
Dana Whitehair, general manager of Spindale, North Carolina-based station WNCW, also said Schiller “could have handled it better,” and welcomed her mea culpa of Sunday night. “I think what Vivian did was appropriate, in apologizing,” Whitehair told Fox News. “I think she recognized that she handled it in a way that was not in the best interests of NPR stations as a whole.”
Whitehair, who has headed WNCW for almost four years, said the Williams firing had provoked more controversy than any other issue in his tenure, both in terms of listener feedback and in the dialogue posted on the internal list-serv by which NPR affiliate managers communicate with each other.
Schiller’s apology, he said, “was prompted by, I’m sure, the great deal of heat that was generated [on the list-serv].” When KANU’s Campbell was asked whether Williams’s firing had been “quite the topic” on the list-serv, she replied: “Oh, yes. Still is quite the topic.”
The website for the University of Kentucky’s station, WUKY, encourages listeners and readers to speak out on the issue – and to direct their feedback elsewhere. “To contact NPR regarding Juan Williams,” the website states prominently in the upper righthand corner of its home page, “listeners can call the NPR Listener Care line at (202) 513-3232 10am to 5 pm ET, Monday through Friday, use NPR’s contact form, or contact the NPR Ombudsman at 202.513.3245 (or http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/).”
A little lower down on the WUKY home page, readers will find the full statement on the issue that general manager Tom Godell posted there on Friday. “Here at WUKY we understand your concerns regarding NPR’s recent dismissal of Juan Williams,” Godell wrote. “Rest assured that we are doing everything within our power to gather as much information about the event as we can, and that we are watching closely as this story unfolds.
“As a public radio station,” WUKY’s statement continues, “we support freedom of speech, but we also recognize the need for specific policies to govern the roles of employees. Without full disclosure of Mr. Williams’ employment history with NPR, we cannot take an official stance on their actions.”The general manager for still another NPR station affiliate, also based in the deep south, spoke to Fox News only on condition of anonymity because he did not wish to strain relations with NPR headquarters in Washington. “I have mixed feelings about it,” said the manager. “I probably shouldn’t say anything [on the record] because I might get outspoken. So I should probably keep my mouth shut. I’m an old-fashioned fellow who wishes the Fairness Doctrine were back. That should give you some idea of where I come from on this.”