The fallout from NPR's decision to terminate the contract of former news analyst Juan Williams reached the network's highest levels Thursday as its top news executive, Ellen Weiss, resigned.
The announcement of her departure came the same day as the release of the findings of an external review commissioned by the NPR board of directors in the wake of the episode. The NPR board also said it would overhaul the network's ethics and human resources policies.
Jacques Coughlin for NPR
Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, who resigned over the firing of news analyst Juan Williams, spent nearly three decades at NPR.
Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, who resigned over the firing of news analyst Juan Williams, spent nearly three decades at NPR. Jacques Coughlin for NPR
The report, carried out by the law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges, found the dismissal of Williams to be legal. The report concluded that the network and Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news, gave Williams adequate notice and broke no element of his contract.
That said, the way in which Weiss dismissed Williams — by phone — became a flashpoint that erupted into a public and political debate.
"It doesn't surprise me that somebody was going to go, after the incredibly sloppy, messy and often embarrassing severance of Juan Williams," said Robert Siegel, the host of All Things Considered and a longtime and admiring colleague of Weiss.
Weiss, known as a passionate, dedicated and at times willful newsroom leader, had been with the network since 1982. In an interview, Weiss said she had had several conversations with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller in the days leading up to the report's release. Weiss said she did not talk directly with members of the board of directors before submitting her resignation.
"Let's put it this way: I made a choice and I chose to resign," Weiss said.
The board's account released publicly Thursday was a summary of the law firm's findings. Only an oral presentation was made to the board by the law firm.
"I think we all know that the termination [of Williams] was not handled in the best possible way," NPR Board Chairman Dave Edwards said in an interview. "Management has previously acknowledged that fact — they've admitted the fact that it was done hastily. I think we all know that that contributed to a lot of the misunderstandings and criticisms of NPR."
The original incident took place in October. Williams appeared on the Fox News Channel, where he was also a paid commentator. At the time, Williams spoke of his fears whenever he saw fellow airline passengers dressed in what he called "Muslim garb." His comments sparked some criticism from Muslims and liberal advocacy groups, who called the comments racial profiling.
NPR said the remark was the latest in a pattern of problematic comments made by Williams over recent years.
In an interview a day later, Schiller called the decision to terminate Williams' contract one of journalistic principle. She said NPR needed to maintain its impartiality as a news organization.
"Our reporters, our hosts and our news analysts should not be injecting their own views about a controversial issue as part of the story," she said. "They should be reporting the story."
Schiller also told the New York Times at the time that there was "no daylight" between herself and NPR's senior news team on the issue and that the decision was discussed at length.
But NPR's termination of Williams' contract quickly became a political firestorm.
Conservative commentators called foul, saying that he was being punished for expressing a valid if impolitic truth. Some journalists took his side as well. Republican lawmakers threatened to target federal funding for public broadcasters — an act that would threaten NPR member stations far more directly than NPR, but with potential ramifications for the network. Member stations pay fees to NPR to run its news programs, and their officials hold 10 of the 17 seats on the not-for-profit company's corporate board.
Nowhere was the criticism of NPR stronger than on Fox News — where for a time opinion hosts made it a nightly cause. Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes gave Williams a three-year, $2 million contract. Later, Ailes called NPR executives "Nazis," a remark for which he offered a back-handed apology to the Jewish advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League, but not to NPR.
Williams declined to comment for this story but spoke on Fox News on Thursday several hours after Weiss' resignation became public, accusing NPR of smothering political and candid comments in favor of political correctness.
"Everybody knows the real story here," Williams told Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly on Thursday. "You can't go around treating people like trash and pretending that anybody who has a different point of view is illegitimate."
Schiller had also come under attack for her own verbal gaffe for which she had to apologize. During remarks at the Atlanta Press Club the day after Williams' firing, Schiller said that Williams, as a news analyst, should not be voicing his personal views in public, but instead suggested he should confide them privately — perhaps to a publicist or a psychiatrist. Fox hosts and anchors seized on that as an effort to paint Williams as someone in need of psychiatric help.
The board backed Schiller in the late fall and gave her a second expression of support Thursday, but it publicly rebuked her, too, disclosing that it was withholding her bonus for 2010.
The board also announced plans for a series of reforms, including how human resources decisions are handled and the company's ethics policies, especially those addressing what NPR News staffers are allowed to say in other venues, such as cable news channels or emerging social media platforms. Conservative critics argued that NPR had employed a double-standard, pointing to provocative public comments made over the years by other NPR figures, such as legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
"This has been a very difficult episode for everyone involved at NPR and at our public radio stations, and I regret the impact it's had," Schiller told me Thursday. "We are looking to accept the board's direction in terms of the recommendations, and many of those are well under way and they will make NPR even better than it is today."
Weiss' resignation represents a swift fall for a newsroom leader who had been with the network for nearly three decades, starting as a junior producer and rising through the ranks to hold such jobs as executive producer of All Things Considered and senior national editor. She led the network's domestic coverage on many key stories, helped to sharpen its investigative focus, and helped lead the network to larger audiences and major national awards.
"She went to the national desk as our national editor at a time when frankly that part of the news division was in the shadow of our foreign reporting," said NPR's Siegel, who also lauded Weiss for helping to select and nurture a cadre of hosts, editors and producers for his program.
As for Weiss, she told me her decision to resign was traumatic but that she felt she had built a strong team of journalists in place to keep reporting the news.
Now, nearly 29 years after joining NPR, Weiss said she will be a listener once more.
She will be replaced temporarily by Margaret Low Smith, NPR's vice president for programming. The two executives joined NPR on the same week in 1982.