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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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