Press Box

The NPR Body Count

Will the last body dragged out the radio network’s front door please turn off the lights?

Vivian Schiller

They’re stacking former NPR executives like cord wood on 7th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW outside the radio network.

Yesterday they carted out NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. The day before, Ronald J. Schiller, NPR’s chief fundraiser, got the curb treatment. His resting place was previously occupied by Ellen Weiss, the senior vice president for news—essentially NPR’s editor-in-chief—who got the shove from Vivian Schiller in January.

None of these key executives had been at their jobs long. Ron Schiller arrived in October 2009. Vivian Schiller became CEO in January 2009, after the NPR board sent the gut wagon to collect Ken Stern, who had only been CEO since October 2006.

Over on the news side, Weiss replaced Bill Marimow as news VP in 2006. He’d spent about eight months in the position before getting jettisoned. Bruce Drake had the job for six years—practically a lifetime in NPR years—before Marimow. After Marimow got dumped, he moved over to become NPR’s ombudsman, replacing Jeffrey Dvorkin, who had been news VP until 2000, when his three-year tenure ended and they needed a leafy place to park him. Marimow spent about 15 minutes as NPR ombudsman before fleeing for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

With Vivian Schiller and Ellen Weiss out, the place is now being run by interim managers. If NPR were a newspaper, you could say that it is operating without a publisher and without an editor.

What makes the executive culture at nonprofit NPR so murderous? There are as many bodies on display here as in a production of Hamlet. Would you apply for one of these high-level jobs after witnessing the carnage?

The cause of all this NPR palace intrigue can be traced to the most un-American of all American institutions: The committee. If you’ve ever worked on a committee that wielded real power (as opposed to one that reports to an owner who is really in charge), you know how flaky such groups can be. Nobody is in charge. Everybody is in charge. Alliances shift. Goals shift. Politics are played, deals are cut, and revenge is meted out.

At NPR, the committee is called the Board of Directors, and most of its members are public-radio station chiefs from around the country. I don’t know whether the NPR board has hired the wrong people or, after having hired the right people, has failed to back them up. Or a little bit of both. But this much turmoil in such a short time span can be attributed to either the water supply or to the board. I prefer to accuse the board.

Why won’t the board stand firm, you ask? NPR isn’t an independent and powerful freestanding operation, it’s the creation of a network of stations, some of them sophisticated and urban but many more parochial. Most of the board’s members observe agendas and priorities that are separate from maintaining a strong national journalistic network, which by its nature sometimes has to stand strong against outside attacks. Sure, the local stations want their Morning Edition and All Things Considered to “tent pole” their broadcast day and they want their Car Talk. But their primary obsessions are local (that is, raising local money) and federal (that is, making sure Congress continues to fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which many of them depend on).

Every time a faux scandal like Juan Williams or Ron Schiller thrusts its way into the news, the board doesn’t think the way a Sulzberger or a Graham would: How do I gut this out? Instead, they go all wobbly worrying about how their local and federal funding will dry up. Then, a board member suggests that they sack an executive or somebody on-air to silence their critics. Of course, such sackings only encourage the critics. But they do it anyway.

You can dislike NPR all you want—and I do—but what it needs is a gunslinger to face its critics down. When Kevin Klose was CEO he did an OK but not perfect job of apologizing when necessary and standing semi-erect whenever the board or the public got angry. He was a masterful politician. I once watched him dazzle an ad hoc committee of academics, journalists, and business types that met one Friday morning a decade or so ago to advise a troubled magazine. Such beautiful moves! He could have been president—of the country. Alas, he’s being wasted at the University of Maryland, where he is dean of the journalism school. Great hair, too.

If the NPR board were smart, they’d stop fretting about the short-term and concentrate on the long. Then they’d reappoint Klose and give him the power to stabilize the network. But they won’t. Because they aren’t.


And all I want them to do is fire Cokie Roberts. On another note, you can’t fully understand the recent Schillercide without reading Current.Org. Send me messages either through the ether or via e-mail: Consult my Twitter feed before the service fires me. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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