Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
LOS ANGELES - This is not a case of I told you so, but I told you so. The “so” is that NPR would cave on its firing of faux liberal Juan Williams. I made that prediction back in October, and the only thing off was the timetable. NPR simply waited until the dust settled and then dumped Ellen Weiss, NPR senior VP. Dumped is my impolite, but truthful word. In corporate parlance, Weiss resigned. Weiss was widely blamed for engineering the Williams ouster. Her fate was sealed the instant that Fox's Bill O'Reilly, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin, the noisy legion of rightwing talk show hacks, and bloggers, screamed that Williams was the sacrificial lamb to allegedly liberal, left leaning, politically correct NPR.
But the thing that really sealed Weiss’s fate was the indignant and piqued outcry from some mainstream publications that railed that William’s shaft was a blow to the First Amendment and free speech. This was followed by the usual canard—if it’s Williams that gets the ax today for speaking out, it can be any other journalist, commentator, or media voice tomorrow.
The saber rattle of NPR and the phony “liberal bias” notion about NPR from the right was predictable. The First Amendment prattle from the staid media was dumb and hollow. A quick review, Williams had every right to utter his silly, bigoted crack about Muslims making him nervous. But NPR had every right to can him not for the remark but for saying it on another station while still a key fixture at NPR. Williams’ observation, honest and heartfelt though it may have been, carried the implicit endorsement of NPR since he worked for the network and was universally identified as an NPR luminary.
But don’t for a minute be totally fooled by the pap from NPR about the board of directors making a careful review of the “the process.” The head rolling session at NPR had everything to do with NPR’s terror of saying or doing anything that will raise the hackle of anyone within or without Congress about the bogus “liberal bias” that the network supposedly has. That terror has risen exponentially since November with the GOP House and Senate election surge and has grown even greater now that the dozens of new GOP congresspersons and senators are actually in their seats. NPR will walk even more lightly on egg shells knowing that it is just one ticked off Tea Party GOP leaning House rep away from having eyes put back on what it says and does and more particularly who says it.
Williams for a while was the perfect NPR cover. He was their guy who routinely flashed across the Fox Network in between his stint with NPR and said all the right conservative things and along the way became adept at liberal bashing.
His removal was never about his right to speak his mind. It was about the two competing, contradictory, and ultimately ethical violating hats that he ill fittingly wore at Fox and NPR. These were hats that NPR should never have let him wear. Williams just as predictably had a field day in the aftermath of his firing, playing the mournful, aggrieved, and of course totally innocent victim of mean, old, duplicit, hard core “left wing” NPR.
Weiss is out, and the word has almost certainly gushed through the NPR management pipeline to thread even more carefully from here on out to insure that no conservative feathers are ruffled. And just as predictable, Williams couldn’t help himself and had to give NPR one final kick in the teeth. “She (Weiss) had an executioner’s knife for anybody who didn’t abide her way of thinking.” Forget Williams’ evident memory lapse and gloat since he sat and Weiss sat at NPR for years together with apparently no knife being welded by her against him for saying what he wanted.
NPR did not need not apologize for getting rid of Williams, nor did they have to conduct a two month review of “the process” to justify appeasing Williams, Fox, Palin, the Tea Party, and a handful of shrill, saber rattling congresspersons that have threatened to snatch dollars from them. They caved pure and simple. And that’s the bottom line for NPR in the William’s affair.
The statement from NPR follows:
The NPR Board of Directors has announced that it has completed its review into the facts and circumstances leading to the termination of NPR's contract with senior news analyst Juan Williams. The review also included an examination of how other NPR analysts and correspondents have been treated under the NPR Ethics Code with respect to on-air comments. The independent members of NPR's Board (the "Board") worked with outside legal counsel, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP ("Weil"), to gather information related to the contract termination.
In light of the review and feedback provided to them, the Board has adopted recommendations and remedial measures designed to address issues that surfaced with the review. The recommendations and remedial measures range from new internal procedures concerning personnel and on air-talent decisions to taking appropriate disciplinary action with respect to certain management employees involved in the termination. Some of these changes have already been made and others are in process. Specifically, the Board adopted recommendations that NPR:
· Establish a committee comprised of NPR personnel, respected journalists, and others from outside NPR to review and update NPR’s current Ethics Code (the "Code").
· Develop policies and procedures to ensure consistent application of and training on the Code to all employees and contractors.
· Review and update policies/training with respect to the role of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets to ensure that they understand the applicability of the Ethics Code to their work and to facilitate equitable and consistent application of the Code.
· Review and define the roles of NPR journalists (including news analysts) to address a changing news environment in which such individuals have a myriad of outlets and new platforms for their talent, balancing the opportunities presented by such outlets and platforms with the potential for conflicts of interest that may compromise NPR's mission.
· Ensure that its practices encourage a broad range of viewpoints to assist its decision-making, support its mission, and reflect the diversity of its national audiences. The Human Resources Committee of the Board is working in conjunction with key members of NPR management on this issue.
Williams' contract was terminated in accordance with its terms. The contract gave both parties the right to terminate on 30 days’ notice for any reason. The facts gathered during the review revealed that the termination was not the result of special interest group or donor pressure. However, because of concerns regarding the speed and handling of the termination process, the Board additionally recommended that certain actions be taken with regard to management involved in Williams’ contract termination.
The Board has expressed confidence in Vivian Schiller's leadership going forward. She accepted responsibility as CEO and cooperated fully with the review process. The Board, however, expressed concern over her role in the termination process and has voted that she will not receive a 2010 bonus.
NPR also announced that Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice-President for News, has resigned.
"We have taken this situation very seriously and the Board believes these recommendations and remedial steps address the concerns raised in connection with the termination of Williams' contract," said Dave Edwards, Chair. "The Board regrets this incident's impact on NPR and will work with NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, to ensure that these actions will be expeditiously completed, examined, and monitored on an ongoing basis."
In conducting the review, Weil gathered thousands of documents from various sources and interviewed many current and former NPR employees and contractors. Weil requested Williams' participation in the review through both his agent and a former NPR colleague. Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful and Williams was not interviewed.
The Ad Hoc Committee and the non-management members of the Board met on multiple occasions and deliberated on the information provided to them. Weil reported to an Ad Hoc Committee of the NPR Board consisting of Dave Edwards (Chair of the Board), Howard Stevenson (Immediate Past Chair), and Carol Cartwright (Vice-Chair).