We argued at the time that the Board should have stood up for themselves and the journalism NPR produces and not have “ousted” Vivian Schiller. You wrote that Schiller had been a distraction. Why did you think it was necessary to accept Schiller’s resignation?
I think it was an unfortunate situation for her, because she wasn’t directly involved with the sting video. But I also see how things have quieted down now and she became a target—unfortunately, because I think there are lots of good things she did for NPR. One of the board members said that between good luck and bad luck, she had no luck.
It’s a shame, though, that NPR is having to react to these attacks, which have little to do with the actual journalism.
It’s crazy. My job is to make sure that NPR lives up its ethics code and to focus on the journalism. It’s also to be a liaison to the public and the public radio stations. Here I’ve been writing a lot about mistakes that management has made and the way that our listening audience has responded to it.
Which controversy was harder work for you?
Definitely the Juan Williams incident. If you think about it, NPR’s show All Things Considered is turning forty in May, and for much of NPR’s career they have been in a love vacuum. “I love NPR,” people say. This is really the first time in their grown-up history that they’ve been loudly, and in some cases deservedly, criticized and attacked and been under siege.
As somebody who’s been here for four years, I can say I was taken aback when I first started, and I would say, “I’m the NPR ombudsman,” and someone would say, ‘Oh my God, I love NPR, I’m gonna go get my wife .” Then just last week I was with this colleague—with whom I do mentoring of high school journalism students—and were we getting sandwiches and we started talking to somebody. They asked, “Where do you work?” I said, “NPR.” And they said, “Oh, I’m sorry for you.” That to me capped the change.
Some people in management say what has happened are missteps that any news organization makes, but that these mistakes have been exploited by the right. They’ve turned it into something political.
The Juan Williams firing was so shocking as to almost be like a death. Not a death in the sense that Juan Williams died, but just that everything else receded and it just became these endless e-mails, and phone calls—it became this dominant focus that seemed to go on for weeks. Then there was Ellen Weiss being fired, and the Giffords mistake, and then Ron Schiller—the video the phone call, and then a third phone call. You heard people say inside here, “What else can they do?”
Are you expecting to face more of these scandals?
Is there anything you would change in terms of how you responded to the Williams firing and the O’Keefe tape ?
It’s been pretty intense. Since I started in 2007, there was a consistent drumbeat of criticism from listeners about Juan Williams, and often about things that he said on Fox. That raised the question to me: is it what they said or where they said it? Some of the things that Juan said would get attention outside of NPR and then brought to my attention. I wrote about some of them. I brought them up. Now I think, should I have been pushing them harder on coming to some conclusion about the relationship with Juan. It seems the line was constantly being moved in terms of changing his title, saying that when he was on Bill O’Reilly Fox couldn’t call him an NPR analyst, but they could when he was on Chris Wallace. Obviously, it was a very uncomfortable relationship that NPR had with Juan Williams.
I saw the value of Juan Williams to NPR, but it just seemed that there was never a clear understanding of what his role was. By October of 2010, I felt that it really had become an untenable situation and difficult for him to straddle the role of being more of a provocateur on Fox and a straight news analyst on NPR.