Talk Costs NPR Execs Their Jobs

March 9, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

National Public Radio (NPR) announced the resignation of its president and CEO this morning, days after its top fundraising executive was caught on hidden camera calling Tea Party members racists that hijacked the Republican Party.

“The board accepted Vivian’s resignation with understanding, genuine regret and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years,” board chairman Dave Edwards said in a statement. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reported that the board ousted Vivian Schiller, after she “set the tone by saying the board should take any action it felt necessary.”

The scandal was the second in just five months for Vivian Schiller, who had been NPR’s president and CEO since January 2009. In October, NPR made headlines after firing commentator Juan Williams in the wake of comments made on Fox News about Muslims and airline security.

In a video released by conservative activists on Tuesday, Ron Schiller, senior vice president for development at NPR and president of the NPR Foundation, makes comments about right-wing Republicans and says NPR would be better off without federal funding but some of the 268 member radio stations might go dark. Ron Schiller and Vivian Schiller are not related. Vivian Schiller earned an annual salary of $450,000, according to NPR. It was unclear how much Ron Schiller’s earned.

Ron Schiller tendered his resignation on Jan. 24, which was announced last week, and he was to leave NPR on May 5 for a position with The Aspen Institute. He and NPR mutually agreed to make his resignation effective immediately. Ron Schiller came to NPR in September 2009 from the University of Chicago, where he was vice president for alumni relations and development.

The video comes at a time when Republicans introduced proposals to eliminate federal funding for NPR. Funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting makes up about 10 percent of NPR’s budget, while also providing money to public television stations. Government funding at stations in small, rural areas makes up a larger proportion of its revenue.The activists, portraying Muslim donors from the fictitious Muslim Education Action Center (MEAC) looking to give NPR a $5-million donation, talk about Jews swaying media coverage and spreading the “acceptance of Sharia across the world.” They are associated with Project Veritas, an organization headed up by political activist James O’Keefe, who gained prominence after hidden camera stings at some ACORN offices in 2009. Like the videos involving ACORN, the NPR video was edited, from a two-hour lunch meeting to the 12-minute clip released by Veritas.

The recording was made on Feb. 22 during a lunch meeting that also included Betsy Liley, NPR’s institutional giving director, who was placed on administrative leave pending a review by NPR.

In the wake of the video’s release on Tuesday, NPR released a statement, which was updated several times later that day: “The fraudulent organization represented in this video repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept. We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for. Mr. Schiller announced last week that he is leaving NPR for another job.”

By 5:30 on Tuesday, a second statement read: “The comments contained in the video released today are contrary to everything we stand for, and we completely disavow the views expressed. NPR is fair and open-minded about the people we cover. Our reporting reflects those values every single day – in the civility of our programming, the range of opinions we reflect and the diversity of stories we tell.“The assertion that NPR and public radio stations would be better off without federal funding does not reflect reality. The elimination of federal funding would significantly damage public broadcasting as a whole.“Prior to the lunch meeting presented in the edited video, Ron Schiller had informed NPR that he was resigning from his position to take a new job. His resignation was announced publicly last week, and he was expected to depart in May. While we review this situation, he has been placed on administrative leave.”

By 9 p.m., the statement was updated to indicate Ron Schiller had tendered his resignation on Jan. 24, which was announced last week before the Feb. 22 lunch meeting in the video, and that his resignation would take effect immediately.

In a statement through NPR on Tuesday, he said: “While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended.”

“Ron Schiller’s remarks are contrary to what NPR stands for and deeply distressing to reporters, editors and others who bring fairness, civility and respect for a wide variety of viewpoints to their work every day,” Vivian Schiller said in a statement released the day before she resigned.Joyce Slocum, senior vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, will be appointed to interim CEO. The board will establish an Executive Transition Committee to develop a timeframe and process for the recruitment and selection of new leadership.