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The fallout from NPR's dismissal of former news analyst Juan Williams has claimed NPR's top news executive, Ellen Weiss. As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, the announcement of her resignation yesterday coincided with the release of the findings of an external review of the incident.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It is a startling fall for Weiss, the senior vice president for news who worked her way up the ranks over nearly three decades at NPR. Nonetheless, says Robert Siegel, host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and a longtime and an admiring colleague, the logic was clear.
ROBERT SIEGEL: It doesn't surprise me that somebody was going to go after the incredibly sloppy, messy and often embarrassing severance of Juan Williams. I don't think that Ellen's leaving is a measure of her work over the years. I think it was this one, very poorly handled event.
FOLKENFLIK: Weiss's career at NPR unraveled with a single call - the one back in October, in which she told Williams he had made one too many inappropriate remarks. He had made those remarks on Fox News - where he had been a paid commentator - about fearing airline passengers in Muslim garb. The way Weiss fired him became the flash point for a heated public debate. NPR board chairman Dave Edwards
Mr. DAVE EDWARDS (chairman, NPR Board of Directors): I think we all know that the termination was not handled in the best possible way. Management has previously acknowledged that fact. They've admitted the fact that it was done hastily. And I think we all know that that contributed to a lot of the misunderstandings and criticisms of NPR.
FOLKENFLIK: The board commissioned a law firm to conduct an external review. It found the dismissal of Williams was entirely legal, and within the terms of his contract.
Nonetheless, conservatives and some journalists criticized NPR, while some Republican lawmakers are threatening to cut federal funding for public broadcasters. That would hurt NPR member stations more directly than NPR. But member stations pay fees to NPR to broadcast news programs, and their officials hold 10 of the 17 seats on the network's corporate board.
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller was given a vote of support by that board yesterday, as she was shortly after the incident. This time, however, it was accompanied by a rebuke. She lost last year's bonus. Schiller said she accepted responsibility for her involvement in the affair, which included a verbal gaffe that required her to apologize to Williams.
Ms. VIVIAN SCHILLER (CEO, NPR): 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.
FOLKENFLIK: The board said NPR would review its human resources and ethics policies, especially those addressing what NPR news staffers are allowed to say in other venues. Some critics said NPR had a double-standard - punishing Williams, but keeping others who made provocative remarks.
After Williams was dismissed by NPR, Fox gave him a $2 million, three-year contract. Williams spoke on Fox News yesterday about being fired by Weiss for those remarks about Muslims.
Mr. JUAN WILLIAMS (Fox News): That statement, she said, was evidence of bigotry, that she felt that it was no longer any place for me because I had crossed the lines of her journalistic standard. I think what I crossed was her politically correct red line in the sand.
FOLKENFLIK: Yesterday, it was Weiss' turn to leave NPR. Robert Siegel says she was a creature of NPR through and through, even during an increasingly multimedia age.
SIEGEL: She was a very, very strong advocate within NPR for the radio programs that she had produced, and that she had worked with when she was editing our national reporting.
FOLKENFLIK: Margaret Low Smith, NPR's vice president for programming, will temporarily serve as the network's top news executive while a national search is conducted for Weiss' successor. The two started at NPR the same week, back in 1982.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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