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First Juan Williams, Then The Woman Who Fired Him

— Today we got the news that National Public Radio’s Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss resigned, following a company review of the firing of Juan Williams. Weiss was the person who gave Williams the axe after he appeared on Fox News and said airline passengers in Muslim garb gave him the creeps.

The NPR board of directors concluded the termination of Williams’ contract was done by the rules. But they had misgivings about the “speed and handling” of the firing. For this, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller won’t get a 2010 bonus (I didn’t get one either). But it looks like Ellen Weiss is the one who's taking the fall.

When Williams got fired in October it was a major controversy and a big embarrassment to NPR. The Daily Show shot its poison darts, saying Williams violated NPR’s “never say anything interesting” policy. Conservative pundits had a field day, accusing NPR of leftist leanings at worst or excessive political correctness at best.

I wrote about Williams’ firing when it happened. It’s never pretty when people get fired and you can always question its “handling.” The main issue to me is NPR’s curious aversion to any opinion-making by its news staff. Following Williams’ firing Schiller said, “Our reporters, our hosts and our news analysts should not be injecting their own views about a controversial issue as part of their story. They should be reporting the story."

Is this what the Daily Show called the “never say anything interesting” policy? Opinion columns and editorials have been part of the practice of journalism for a long time. I’m not sure why NPR insists it can’t play that game.

Here at KPBS, we just had a training session for reporters and hosts. It was an effort to improve our on-air performance. Interestingly, the session zeroed in on one aspect of public radio’s culture. Our instructor was critical of the NPR style of performance, saying there was something “white and Midwestern” about it. Being a native white Midwesterner myself, I took some offense to that. But she had a point, and her point was that most of us public radio types aren’t expressive enough. We’re too quiet and dull.

I think the aversion to Williams’ boisterous, politically-incorrect opinions was one expression of that. But let’s remember one thing. National Public Radio and its affiliates have seen their audience grow dramatically for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the news and information is so good. The other reason is the tone.

Public radio listeners want to know there’s a place on the radio-news dial they can go to where the people are nice. They’re civil and respectful and they don’t yell at you. Compare that that to Fox News and to the Rush Limbaughs of the world.

Public radio can’t abandon its culture, but I hope we have learned something from the Juan Williams affair. Let me know what you’ve learned from it. Leave a comment below. Just remember we’re nice people, so don’t be mean.

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Avatar for user 'hopeheadsd'

hopeheadsd | January 6, 2011 at 8:41 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Tom, I have been an avid listener for the past couple of years. Quite frankly, if I really want an opinion of news events with experts shouting from every angle, I have my pick of the litter on the cable news networks.

For the news I come to KPBS radio and television and the BBC.


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Avatar for user 'JuanWilliamsFan'

JuanWilliamsFan | March 9, 2011 at 7:58 a.m. ― 6 years ago

I am very happy to learn that Vivian Schiller and Ellen Weiss have resigned from NPR. Ms. Schiller and/or Weiss is responsible for the firing of Juan Williams for expressing a basic concern that I too share. Thanks to the harsh action, I was forced to stop the automatic monthly donations that I had been making to KPBS for decades. So today is a celebration that NPR may go forward less biased than before under Ms. Schiller's direction and now NPR and KPBS employees may not need to be silenced in fear of her wrath should they express a personal concern that offends her bias toward Islam and Muslims. Note that Mr. Williams was not expressing his personal concern on NPR or KPBS air-time, so it had no impact on whether or not KPBS is a radio-news dial where people are nice (sans the recently resigned).

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