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Post-Vivian Schiller, big stakes in NPR's next moves

Time to reinvent public radio? As NPR's board of directors launch search for new CEO after Vivian Schiller exit, big issues confront next leader. Among them: reputation makeover, public funding issue, and online presence.

By Staff writer / March 10, 2011

A seat saved for Vivian Schiller, President and CEO of National Public Radio (NPR), sits empty during the 2011 Bloomberg Media Summit in New York on Wednesday, March 9. Post-Vivian Schiller, as NPR's board of directors search for new CEO, big issues confront next leader.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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The short, tumultuous leadership of Vivian Schiller is over at NPR, leaving public radio employees shellshocked, wounded, and peering into an uncertain future.

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Her departure – coming less than a day after an undercover video showed an NPR fundraiser, whom she had hired, belittling tea party Republicans and conservatives in general – is the third top-level exit in recent months. The fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to Ms. Schiller), is also gone, as is longtime producer Ellen Weiss, who was forced out as senior vice president of news after the controversial firing of news analyst Juan Williams in October.

The exodus has left NPR shaken and buried in controversy. Its 17-member board of directors, which includes 10 heads of member public radio stations, says it is putting together a search committee to find NPR's next leader. But whoever gets the job will take the helm of an organization whose journalistic reputation has been tarnished, that seems conflicted about the need for continued federal funding for public broadcasting, and that has big unresolved points of tension between itself and local public radio stations across the US.

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At stake is not only the future of NPR, but also perhaps American journalism itself.

"I see a lot of big stakes for NPR as an institution, but also for American journalism, in what's going on here," says Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. "None of us want to say that the country can't get along without any one organization like NPR.... But if we lose NPR, even if you don't listen regularly, our country and our public realm is diminished by not having that kind of strong journalistic presence on a daily basis, providing something that commercial networks don't do anymore."

Ms. Schiller addressed two of those points when explaining her resignation after the sting video, acknowledging that it dealt another blow to NPR's reputation and may have imperiled NPR's efforts to hold onto $90 million in indirect federal funding. "We took a reputational hit around the Juan Williams incident, and this was another blow to NPR's reputation. There's no question," she told the Associated Press.

Mr. Williams's firing came after he said during an appearance on Fox News that flying on airplanes with people in "Muslim garb" made him nervous – a response that many conservatives derided as a knee-jerk bow to liberal political correctness.

Then, in February, NPR falsely reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona had died in the mass shooting at a public event in Tucson.

The sting video, with its derision of conservatives, further cemented an image of NPR brass as elite and condescending liberals – just as conservative critics have long complained.

The challenge ahead is for NPR to repair its reputation, rally an estimated 170 million listeners to its cause, and better explain to the public – and to Congress – its core values and importance to American democracy.

"Everyone for the last couple of years has been talking about the NPR model, where media purchasers pay directly for broadcasts, but in the past couple of months NPR has squandered its lead, and it started with the Juan Williams fiasco," says crisis management consultant Richard Levick, a longtime NPR listener in Washington, D.C. "Since that time, they've been playing defense, and we've seen Ellen Weiss offered as a human sacrifice and now Vivian Schiller as another human sacrifice ... to show that they're fair and balanced."

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