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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Review of Juan Williams' firing by NPR and resignation of top executive clears up few questions

7

January

juanwilliams.jpgAfter plowing through the bureaucrat-speak filling the NPR board of directors' review of Juan Williams' firing, one troubling question seemed to go unanswered.

Why exactly did he get fired in the first place?

NPR executives said back in October, when they terminated Williams 'contract as a news analyst, he was let go for expressing "personal public positions on controversial issues." But given that his job was essentially delivering opinions about how political issues would play out in the news -- and they changed his job title a few years ago to make that process clearer -- that explanation sounded like a confusing bit of hair-splitting.

What this really feels like, is a problem news outlets often must handle but rarely confront: How to handle a star who is crossing the line.

Cut loose after telling Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that people in "Muslim garb" on airplanes made him nervous, Williams seemed to have been terminated for the cardinal sin of embarrassing his employer. The circumstances of the termination -- delivered by telephone with no chance for Williams to meet with NPR executives to plead his case -- only made the situation worse.

On Thursday, NPR announced that the woman who told Williams his contract was being terminated, senior vice president of news Ellen Weiss, had resigned after 29 years with the organization. NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller, who made the mistake of telling the Atlanta Press Club Williams should have kept his thoughts about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist," lost her 2010 bonus.

Despite NPR's explanations and protestations, this seems like a simple equation. NPR tolerated its tensions with a highly visible star until it couldn't anymore. And when executives acted, they moved with such brutal finality, they couldn't really justify their actions.

And because Williams was a star with another, highly visible employer willing to exploit the situation to its own advantage, he was allowed to plead his case before the world in a way that only embarrassed NPR further.

The board only released a statement on its review; there is no written report (convenient for a government-supported non-profit, which might have faced public pressure to release a written analysis). And, of course, it leaves many controversial questions unanswered: Was Williams allowed too much leeway before he was terminated, due to his star status? Was his position as NPR's most visible black male voice a contributing factor? Did Williams' allegations that he was targeted for countering a liberal orthodoxy at NPR have any merit?

Their most important conclusion: NPR was within its rights to end his contract, which allowed termination with 30 days notice for any reason. And despite Williams' constant criticism of the channel for letting him go -- "You can't go around treating people like trash, and pretending that anybody who has a different point of view is illegitimate,"Williams' said on Fox News Thursday -- he hasn't said much about taking his allegations to a courtroom, where they might be fully vetted. He didn't participate in the NPR board's review.

Otherwise, the statement on the NPR board's report mostly listed recommendations critics like me suggested the organization tackle months ago: form a group to update the organization's ethics code, clarifying the commentary boundaries for NPR employees; make sure they're applied equally to all employees; make sure they make sense in a media world where every prominent media figure is asked to punditize more often.

Click here to see NPR's The Two-Way news blog, which has the full release by NPR's board of Directors on the review, a memo from Schiller and comments from Weiss given to NPR and the Los Angeles Times.

These conclusions back NPR's public position on Williams' termination and the subsequent firestorm; that the biggest problem here was how it was handled. But there are deeper issues the controversy unveiled -- whether NPR sees fit to handle those, will only be revealed over time.

[Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 8:58am]

    

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