I would be completely remiss in not saying something about the situation that has unfolded this week at NPR.
On Monday night (3/7) I learned that the network’s top fundraising executive, Ron Schiller, was leaving to take a job at the Aspen Institute. Too bad, I thought; I had met Ron a number of times since NPR hired him away from the University of Chicago in 2009 and thought he was getting a pretty good handle on the complex business of public radio. Ron seemed to understand that NPR (the news producer and program distributor) could succeed in fulfilling its aspirations only to the degree that it could stay in alignment with, and collaborate with, its independent, locally-controlled member stations (like KUSP)… and getting major philanthropic support for NPR would be far easier if he worked closely with strong local stations, which themselves were becoming more philanthropically oriented.
Boy, was I wrong.
On Tuesday Ron Schiller’s departure was expedited by about two months after he conceded he had said “stupid things” in a February meeting with people posing as possible NPR donors that was clandestinely recorded on video and then (in heavily edited form) presented to a breathless world by Tucker Carlson’s Internet news project, The Daily Caller. James O’Keefe, whose videos of a phony pimp and prostitute fatally damaged ACORN, apparently masterminded this so-called “sting” operation directed at NPR.
How Ron Schiller and his NPR colleague, Betsy Liley, let themselves get pulled into this I will never understand. In any event, the trap was sprung and a new wave of anti-NPR rhetoric poured forth, most significantly from Republican office-holders and pundits who are making every effort to shut off all tax-supported funding for public broadcasting.
On Tuesday night the NPR Board of Directors (the majority of whom are managers of local NPR stations, just as I am) convened and obtained the resignation of Vivian Schiller, NPR’s President and CEO. Vivian Schiller’s removal was duly reported the morning after, and my best sense of my manager colleagues today is that many of them are pleased and relieved. Me, not so much.
I strongly believe that Ron Schiller had no business representing NPR in any capacity if he was given to saying the things he apparently said to O’Keefe’s performance artists about members of the conservative or Tea Party movements, no matter what he personally thinks. He was on the clock, he was representing NPR (and therefore, indirectly, much of public radio, KUSP included), and there are standards of professional conduct that apply to him in that situation. He conceded that he blew it, NPR and public broadcasting sustained damage to our reputations as a consequence, so that’s it. Bye. Have a nice life.
I am much more troubled by Vivian Schiller’s exit. I concede that there’s an argument to be made that if too many things go wrong with any outfit, you get rid of the boss. But as far as I can tell there is no reason to believe that Vivian Schiller had any more tolerance for Ron Schiller’s apparent misconduct, once it was revealed, than I would have had were I to have been his boss. I don’t think she did anything to foster an anti-conservative environment at NPR — as a long-time worker in mainstream journalism, I know she accepted the principle that doing the work NPR does requires fair treatment and respect for almost all viewpoints, including ones that you personally disagree with.
The effectiveness of the current attack on public broadcasting’s federal support, and the probable consequences for our public service on a national scale if that support vanished, are creating immense anxiety for many public radio managers. I understand that. But I don’t think sending Vivian Schiller packing will deflect the attack. I think there is a good chance it will, if anything, make public broadcasting’s adversaries even more determined. That’s certainly the view of Rob Paterson, an observer of our medium whom I like and respect; his views are tartly expressed by his blog post today.
One thing is guaranteed: the absence of an effective CEO during this critical time will prevent NPR and its member stations from coming to grips with many urgent issues. The federal funding question is just one of them. No less crucial is reaching agreement on how to organize and fund our ongoing collective transition from a radio-only system to a constellation of local, state/regional, and national/global entities that serve audiences on the radio, on desktops, and on mobile Internet-connected thingamajigs. Vivian urgently wanted to see this transition executed successfully, while building NPR’s preeminence as a national news organization. Failure to reach a good outcome on this front would be, I submit, a national tragedy. Delay seems certain. And we all know how helpful delay is when managing Internet-driven change.
NPR’s Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, has some helpful words about the Schiller fiasco (parts I and II) on her blog, here.
[Updated 11:30 AM 3/10/11 to add] And Dennis Haarsager, who preceded Vivian Schiller as NPR’s CEO (although on an interim basis), adds very useful perspective and a number of informative links via a post on his “Technology 360″ blog.
Joyce Slocum, the network’s top lawyer, is now in charge of NPR pending a search for a new permanent CEO. Seriously. If you can point me to a time when good things happened to a news organization while it was led by an attorney, I’d appreciate it…