NPR’s Board of Directors plays an important role in helping to guide the organization and its leaders — but it did not have a say in Ellen Weiss’ resignation.
David Edwards, chair of the board, told me in a phone interview that the board can only make personnel decisions concerning the CEO, and therefore did not recommend that Weiss resign from her position as senior vice president for news.
Weiss’ resignation was announced Thursday, along with findings from the board’s review of Juan Williams’ termination. Weiss, who taught in a leadership seminar at Poynter, was widely criticized after she fired Williams by phone following a remark he made about Muslims on “The O’Reilly Factor” last October.
Edwards nevertheless spoke highly of Weiss’ role in public radio, calling her a “strong journalist who has worked tirelessly as a leader of NPR News.” (Weiss, who had worked at NPR since 1982, did not respond to requests for an interview.)
NPR’s president and CEO, Vivian Schiller, was also criticized during the Williams controversy for saying “whatever feelings Williams has about Muslims should be between him and ‘his psychiatrist or his publicist.’ ” Schiller, who later apologized for the comment, continues to have “total support” from the 17-member board, Edwards said.
“We appreciated the fact that she took responsibility for her role in the process as a good CEO would and should do,” he said. “But she was involved, and this happened on her watch, so the board thought it was prudent not to award her a financial bonus for 2010.”
Williams’ termination ‘not handled properly’
NPR’s Board of Directors worked with an outside legal counsel, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, to gather relevant information for its review. The counsel interviewed various people within NPR and then reported back to the board members, who did not conduct any interviews themselves.
The counsel also reviewed thousands of documents and e-mails and then had teleconferences with the board members to discuss their findings. Edwards said Schiller, who is also on the board, was interviewed but was not part of the board’s discussions with the counsel.
Edwards highlighted two key findings from the review: First, Williams’ termination was consistent with the terms of his contract. And, contrary to accusations, there was no evidence that the decision to terminate Williams’ contract was influenced by pressure from donors or any other interest groups.
“Having said all that, the review also told us that the termination was not handled appropriately,” said Edwards, who became chief of the board just a couple weeks after NPR terminated Williams’ contract. “You want to make sure things are done deliberately — with the correct consultations and the right people around the table. To be honest with you, not all of that was done; things were done with haste, as opposed to the deliberate process that you would hope would take place.”
Schiller’s goals for revising NPR’s ethics code
As part of its review, the board asked NPR to establish a committee aimed at updating and reviewing the organization’s ethics code.
“We want to make sure that NPR’s ethics code is written in such a way that it’s reflective of the values we believe in as a news organization,” said Edwards, who is also general manager of WUWM public radio in Milwaukee. “The code has to be ingrained into the DNA of NPR so that our listeners have the confidence to know that NPR takes seriously these principles and will not waver from them.”
Schiller is leading the committee, which had its first meeting in December. The 14-member committee is comprised of NPR staffers and journalists from outside the organization. Members include David Cohn of Spot.us; Raul Ramirez, executive director of news & public affairs at KQED Public Radio; Ashley Messenger, associate general counsel at NPR; and Bob Steele, The Poynter Institute’s Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values.
In an e-mail interview, Schiller said the committee has asked NPR stations in Orlando, Phoenix and St. Louis to hold focus groups for listeners to share their thoughts on NPR’s ethics code and social media policy. The committee also plans to hold additional sessions for NPR news staff and managers who are interested in learning more about what the group is working on. Schiller said the committee will draft a set of recommendations for the board’s review by mid-February and will announce revisions to the code by early spring.
In her e-mail, Schiller outlined five main goals:
- To make sure the code remains as consistent with our values as it was when it was drafted in 2003.
- To make sure the code is consistent with the reality of media in 2011.
- To make sure it’s clear.
- To make sure the whole staff understands it.
- To make sure it is consistently applied.
Edwards stressed the importance of this last goal. The board, he said, has asked NPR to update policies about staffers’ appearance on other media outlets and make sure staffers understand how the ethics code applies to these situations.
Williams wasn’t the only NPR staffer who has appeared on other broadcast outlets. Mara Liasson, NPR’s national political correspondent, has contributed to Fox News programs since 1997. Following Williams’ termination, some questioned why NPR continued to allow her to appear on Fox.
Edwards said it’s too premature to say whether Liasson, or any NPR staffers for that matter, would still be allowed to appear on other outlets a year from now. “I think it would be wrong for me or anyone to say or to know what the outcome will be,” he said. “These are core discussions that I suspect NPR and other news organizations really have to grapple with, and that’s what this committee has to do.”
The completion of the board’s review is the first step in what Edwards hopes will become an ongoing effort to make the ethics code more relevant to NPR’s journalists and audience.
“We want to learn from what we’ve gone through and make sure we take a look at the decision making process and the ethics process,” Edwards said. “I suspect that will be a part of every board meeting moving forward. This is, in some respects, just the beginning.”