Vivian Schiller’s resignation caps ‘traumatic’ six months at NPR amid allegations of bias

The ouster of NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller caps a tough, traumatic six months for the nonprofit news organization, one marked by the clumsy termination of news analyst Juan Williams, the resulting resignation of Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss and now Ron Schiller’s disparaging comments about conservatives and the tea party movement.

Both the Williams firing and Ron Schiller’s comments (he is not related to Vivian Schiller) have spurred claims by conservatives that NPR is biased. Following Williams’ firing, some Republican lawmakers called for cutting off federal funding to NPR. In Ron Schiller’s comments captured on video, he said that NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.”

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik tweeted Wednesday morning that Vivian Schiller had been “forced out.”

“I recognize the magnitude of this news,” said Board of Directors Chairman Dave Edwards in a statement, “and that it comes on top of what has been a traumatic period for NPR and the larger public radio community.” (My live blog of NPR’s news conference regarding the resignation, posted below, has more details.)

The controversy started in October when Juan Williams said on Fox News that he becomes nervous when he sees people in “Muslim garb” boarding a plane. According to Williams, he was given no chance to explain himself before Weiss fired him by phone.

Unlike people who act as commentators, Vivian Schiller said in a memo to member stations, news analysts like Williams “may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts.” She also said this was not the first time NPR had problems with Williams.

At one point, Vivian Schiller said publicly that Williams should keep such thoughts between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist”; she later apologized for saying that.

Williams, on the other hand, maintained the real reason he was fired is that he appears on Fox News.

In January, NPR’s board of directors announced that it had completed an internal investigation into Williams’ firing and that Weiss had resigned. Both she and Edwards said the board didn’t ask for her resignation.

Somewhat lost at the time was NPR’s plan to review its ethics policies.

In that statement, the board expressed measured support for Vivian Schiller’s leadership:

“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.

That support seems to have evaporated in the 24 hours since conservative activist James O’Keefe released a video in which Ron Schiller spoke disparagingly about conservatives to two people posing as Muslim donors.

NPR’s immediate reaction to Ron Schiller’s comments was that it was “appalled.”

Ron Schiller already was planning to leave his post as senior vice president for fundraising for a job at the Aspen Institute. On Tuesday, he said he would leave immediately; Wednesday morning, the Aspen Institute announced that he had decided not to join the organization.

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