Frame Game

Weiss Wash

NPR purged Juan Williams without clear due process. Is it doing the same to Ellen Weiss?

Juan Williams. Click image to expand.
Juan Williams

The NPR executive who fired Juan Williams for allegedly bigoted comments about Muslims has been forced out. Conservatives are celebrating, and Williams is happy. “It’s good news for NPR if they can get someone who is the keeper of the flame of liberal orthodoxy out of NPR,” he told his new full-time employer, Fox News.

No. It isn’t good news. Neither NPR nor the executive, Ellen Weiss, has explained her departure. In the absence of a clear explanation, justified by rules that can be applied consistently to other NPR employees, this looks like another political purge.

When Weiss fired Williams, I blasted NPR  for distorting his comments. NPR’s treatment of him—refusing to meet with him for clarification, firing him over the phone, and citing in-house ethics rules that it had failed to apply to others—made the matter worse. But the lesson of that debacle wasn’t to purge the purger. Weiss’ politics, liberal or not, shouldn’t matter. The lesson was to establish clear rules and apply them consistently and transparently to all employees. In the case of Weiss, there’s no sign that this has happened.

To its credit, NPR has learned half the lesson. In contrast to Williams’ abrupt and chaotic firing, the organization enlisted an external contractor—the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges—to gather facts for its assessment of the executives who fired him. NPR’s board met several times to review the evidence and draw conclusions. The process took two months. The board concluded  that NPR should “define the roles of NPR journalists” in the new media environment, “update policies/training with respect to the role of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets” (i.e., revise its ethics code, which was haphazardly applied and was used to justify Williams’ firing), and “develop policies and procedures to ensure consistent application” of the code.

But what about Weiss? NPR’s statements yesterday pretended that she resigned voluntarily and that she did so independently of the Williams review, which, by amazing coincidence, was released at the same time. Please. James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, who had the story first, reports the obvious truth: Weiss “agreed to leave her post under pressure after an internal investigation found that Williams’ firing had been hasty and not well executed.” Rainey’s sources say Weiss told her colleagues she had been “hit by a bus.”

According to NPR board chairman Dave Edwards, as paraphrased in today’s Washington Post, the board “played no role in the departure of Ms. Weiss,” and “personnel decisions were up to” NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. Schiller was clearly involved in the Williams incident as well. As the New York Times  points out, Weiss “said that she had not been the only participant in the decision.” Yet for unexplained reasons, Schiller wasn’t pushed out. When the Post contacted her about Weiss, Schiller “declined to comment on the resignation. She called it a private matter.” In a statement to NPR employees, Schiller refused to elaborate on the board’s miserably vague statement about its review of the Williams case. She wrote: “There is no written ‘report’ aside from this statement, which summarizes the overall outcome of the Weil review. This is typical for this kind of outside review.”

That’s it. That’s all NPR is saying about Weiss. A vague, implicit acknowledgment that Williams was fired without clear application of consistent rules—and, simultaneous with that acknowledgment, the ouster of Weiss without clear application of consistent rules.

In its statement, NPR’s board claims exoneration from the charge that Williams’ ouster was politically or financially motivated. “The facts gathered during the review revealed that the termination was not the result of special interest group or donor pressure,” says the board. But the board has released no evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, its treatment of Weiss adds to the impression that NPR does terminate employees in response to donor pressure.

According to the New York Times, Edwards “said the hasty decision to fire Mr. Williams contributed to criticism of the organization and elevated the debate over federal financing for public radio.” The Times quotes Edwards as saying: “In retrospect, we learned that we should slow down the process, make sure there are people around the table to seriously consider the impact of a decision of this magnitude.” Impact? The Post reports that “several” anonymous sources said “Weiss was given little choice but to resign, given the tone of NPR’s board and the pressure from Congress.”

How exactly is purging Weiss to appease congressional Republicans, who now hold federal purse strings, better than purging Williams to appease liberal donors?

Williams says NPR has treated Weiss more fairly than it treated him. In some ways, that’s true. But in other ways, the new ouster is worse. In Williams’ case, NPR fiercely denied that it was purging an employee over a single incident. In Weiss’ case, as James Fallows and Jeffrey Goldberg point out, NPR seems to have done just that. And we’re still waiting for a nonpolitical explanation to the central question: “What, exactly, did Ellen Weiss do wrong?

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