Vivian Schiller, NPR chief, resigns amid uproar over 'sting video'

Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, stepped down Wednesday in the wake of a sting video that showed an NPR fundraiser disparaging conservatives. With the Vivian Schiller departure, NPR is left to fight criticism that intolerance is part of its DNA.

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    NPR CEO Vivian Schiller addresses a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, in this Jan. 03, 2009 file photo.
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NPR chief executive officer Vivian Schiller resigned Wednesday in the wake of a sting video that showed fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) disparaging conservatives, the tea party movement, and former NPR political analyst Juan Williams, whose firing in October may have set into motion one of the most tumultuous eras in NPR's 41-year history.

James O'Keefe, the controversial conservative sting artist behind the ACORN "pimp videos," said Mr. Williams's firing in October sparked the latest sting operation, in which two actors posing as representatives of a Muslim Brotherhood front group met with Mr. Schiller, a fundraising vice president, to discuss making a $5 million gift to NPR.

The departures of Vivian Schiller and Ron Schiller – and the reason behind them – may further damage NPR's reputation as a public-service broadcaster and could threaten taxpayer support of NPR, which indirectly comes to about $90 million a year.

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NPR reporter David Folkenflik said on-air Wednesday that Ms. Schiller was "forced out," a hint that the organization wants to jettison its leadership and set a new direction.

"I recognize the magnitude of this news – and that it comes on top of what has been a traumatic period for NPR and the larger public radio community," said Dave Edwards, chairman of NPR's Board of Directors, in a statement Wednesday morning. "The Board is committed to supporting NPR through this interim period and has confidence in NPR's leadership team."

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In a wide-ranging conversation during the video sting, Mr. Schiller appeared to belittle “uneducated Americans” who adhere unthinkingly to a conservative party line. He also characterized tea party activists as “seriously, seriously racist” and bemoaned the dearth of “educated, so-called elites” in the political debate.

NPR said Tuesday it was “appalled” by Mr. Schiller’s comments (first made public on the Daily Caller website). Mr. Schiller, who had already announced in January that he would leave NPR in May, has agreed to depart immediately, saying the comments he made were contrary to NPR's values and were "not reflective of my own beliefs." NPR said in Tuesday's statement that the fake donors – part of Mr. O’Keefe’s Project Veritas – “repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused.”

Last year, Williams, an award-winning journalist and an expert on the civil rights movement, was fired from his longtime position as an NPR news analyst over a statement he made on Fox News, a side gig. Williams said Tuesday that Ron Schiller and Vivian Schiller both should be fired because their leadership threatened to "destroy" NPR's reputation.

In an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity Tuesday night, Williams said Mr. Schiller’s professed views hint at intolerance inside NPR, whose organization he claims is rooted in a liberal orthodoxy that results in the same kind of bigotry it decries in others.

“These people are so rude and condescending, and they say I’m a bigot because I tell you how I feel?” said Williams. (NPR fired him after he said on Fox News that he feels nervous when boarding a flight and spotting a Muslim in traditional clothing.) “They attack the tea party as anti-intellectual and biased. They attack anybody that doesn’t agree with their point of view," Williams said of NPR officials, speaking on "Hannity." The sting video is "like tuning a radio and by accident you've got the right wavelength and now you're hearing the truth.... You can see who they are in a way you haven’t before.

Days after Ms. Schiller said she bungled the Williams firing, the Veritas video showed Mr. Schiller saying he was proud of the way NPR had handled it. He said he thought Williams had acted unethically and had subsequently lost his credibility as a journalist. (Williams signed a fulltime deal with Fox News after getting the boot from NPR.)

In the video, Mr. Schiller also told the men posing as donors that he agreed that most newspapers have a pro-Israel or Zionist viewpoint that damages their coverage of Muslims.

Williams has also noted that NPR, which in its commentary advocates ethnic and racial diversity, fired its only African-American male commentator over a single comment – though Williams’s gig at Fox News had long been a point of tension between Williams and NPR. After Williams was fired, the National Association of Black Journalists chided NPR for its failure to hire more African-American journalists.

Ms. Schiller said Tuesday that diversity “is a very, very big priority for us. We have a number of different initiatives under way to diversify – further diversify – our staff, our reporters, the people we interview on the air, and, of course, our audience. We think we’ve made some progress, but it’s not nearly enough.”

NPR critics say such comments are evidence of “doublespeak.”

“They proclaim to be nonracist, nonbigoted, straightforward … and here this guy adds a slam on Jews,” said Williams in the "Hannity" interview. “I’m the devil, Sean, and he’s going on about people in this disparaging way where NPR and he are the really good guys, the smart people, and isn’t it sad that more people like them aren’t running America.”

Maxie Jackson, for one, disagrees with Mr. Schiller’s statement that middle America is “uneducated.” But Mr. Jackson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, seemed frustrated by Mr. Schiller's comments.

“I’m from East Lansing, I’m from middle America, and I would hope and firmly believe that the folks who are residing in middle America are intelligent and capable of discerning the difference between a fundraiser at NPR, his personal perspective, versus the news journalism department at National Public Radio,” says Jackson in a phone interview.

Williams emphasized on Tuesday his belief that NPR executives such as Ms. Schiller are “destroying” the credibility of hard-working reporters and editors who produce NPR’s on-air and Internet news and commentary.

Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, says Mr. Schiller’s comments ultimately shouldn’t influence people’s perception of NPR as a legitimate news organization. “It doesn’t prove that NPR should stop being funded by the government just because someone speaks like this, because there are 400 people at NPR who would disagree with what he said,” says Mr. Ward.

In the video, Mr. Schiller also noted that NPR would be better off without federal funding, because the network would then have more independence and it would end confusion among potential donors about how much taxpayers actually support public radio.

NPR receives no direct funding from the government, but the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gives $90 million a year in federal funds to public radio affiliate stations throughout the US. The affiliates, in turn, use that money to buy programming from NPR. NPR says only about 2 percent of its revenues are federal dollars, but that those funds are integral to keeping public radio stations on the air, especially in rural areas. On average, 70 percent of member stations' revenues come from private sources.

It's not clear how the Schiller and Schiller departures will affect NPR's fight to retain federal funding – but it almost certainly won't help. Senate Republicans have introduced a bill that would end subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which also funds PBS, originator of “Sesame Street” and “The News Hour.” Senate Democrats likely would ultimately oppose such an effort.

Nevertheless, “I think this guy Schiller has certainly increased the odds that NPR funding will get cut off,” says Tom Edsall, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.

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