Call me lucky. I had a pre-scheduled interview this morning with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller this morning before her speech at the Atlanta Press Club Newsmakers luncheon at the 191 Club in downtown Atlanta.
So lo and behold, the entire Juan Williams firing blew up the past 24 hours. I happen to be the first person to talk to her about it. She basically said he was on NPR as a news analyst and wasn’t supposed to express opinions, something he had done time and time again on Fox News. This was just the final straw. Commentators, in contrast, are specifically called that on NPR and are supposed to be opinionated.
She said this has nothing to do with Fox News or his particular views of Muslims. She is also sorry NPR did this while most public radio stations (including WABE-FM) are in the middle of their fall pledge drives.
After the luncheon, John Weatherford, senior chief operating officer at WABE-FM, acknowledged the Williams flap has been a “distraction” for the pledge drive, and he has gotten many emails and calls from WABE listeners who won’t give money because of it. He also said today is the matching day for Atlanta Community Food Bank and he hopes it doesn’t hurt them.
[Williams himself spoke about the situation on Fox News today and said he couldn't believe he was let go without even a face-to-face conversation. He was terminated by phone.]
UPDATE@ 5:25 p.m. The Los Angeles Times reports that Fox has signed Williams to a new three-year contract worth nearly $2 million.
Here is part of the Q&A:
Q: Okay. What happened?
A: Let’s state a couple of facts. Juan is not an employee of NPR. He’s an independent contractor. He’s not NPR staff. He’s an NPR analyst. We have a contract with him for analyst opinions to provide news analysis. He is not a columnist or commentator. He also has an on-going relationship with Fox News. Mara Liasson is also on Fox News and is a full-time staffer. We accept that’s a whole other issue. However, we expect our journalists, whether they are news analysts or reporters to behave like journalists.
Q: So did Juan really get fired over just those Muslim comments? [He said he was uncomfortable with Muslims dressed in traditional garb on airplanes during a Fox News telecast yesterday.]
A: There have been several instances over the last couple of years where we have felt Juan has stepped over the line. He famously said last year something about Michelle Obama and Stokely Carmichael. [The quote on Fox News early last year: "Michelle Obama, you know, she's got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going" and that she'll be an "albatross" for President Obama.]. This isn’t a case of one strike and you’re out.
Q: So this is obviously not an isolated incident.
A: There’s so much misinformation on the blogosphere, it’s nuts. This has been an on-going issue. [Here's NPR's ombudsman's piece on him last year after the Obama comment.] When he does that, when anybody does that, it undermines their credibility as a journalist or in Juan’s case, a news analyst for NPR. Those two things cannot go together.
Q: Have you done this before with other analysts or reporters?
A: It’s impossible to answer that. Every circumstance is different and would create false parallels.
Q: As you mentioned, Mara Liasson appears on Fox News. Is there an issue with Fox News?
A: No. She behaves on Fox as a journalists. I have no issues with anything she has said on Fox. This is not about Fox News. It’s not about a political agenda. This is not about even validating or invalidating [Williams'] feelings.
Q: Mike Huckabee is now saying NPR has discredited itself and should have federal funding revoked.
A: Yes, I heard that. This has become a political issue. My God, I’m shocked!
Q: Could NPR live without federal funding?
A: Let’s go on a sidebar. There’s a misperception about federal funding and public radio. There’s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. They receive $90 million a year and a vast majority goes to member public radio stations. Those stations pull in more than $1 billion collectively a year. It’s significant and important but not even close to the lion’s share of revenues for public radio. NPR gets no allocation from CPB. Zero. We are a private 501(c)3. We’ve had journalists call up and ask what department of the government we report to. That’s laughable. Have you listened to our shows? We do apply for competitive grants from the likes of the Ford Foundation and the Knight Foundation. As a result, some money from CPB does come to us when we win grants. Depending on the year, it represents just one to three percent of our total budget.
Q: What is your annual budget?
A: $160 million a year from station fees and dues, corporate underwriting, philanthropic contributions from individuals and corporation and earned income and earnings from our endowment.
Q: How healthy are you?
A: We had some issues the last couple of years and went into deficits. But we’ve regrouped and we’re back on track.
During the luncheon, she repeated much of what she told me.
“We are for civil liberties,” she said. “If you want to be a political activist, you may not also be a reporter or news analyst for NPR.”
Schiller also said it’s “sophomoric” to deride objectivity as a lie of omission, that hiding a journalists’ biases is a bad thing: “Yes, we are humans. We have opinions. None of us are impartial, that objectivity and absolute truth as concepts are unattainable. It does not follow that providing the most objective and most impartial work possible is not a worthy goal for professional journalists.”
She continues: “This is where the Juan Williams story enters. We have checks and balances to serve that goal. That’s why we have editors. We have an ombudsman and corrections. It’s why we let readers comment on stories. It’s why we run opinions and commentaries and label them as such. Commentaries are different from news analysis. It’s certainly why we practice journalism and prohibit journalists from certain activities, not just to protect the appearance of objectivity… it’s to protect the ideal of fair-minded journalism… People have strong opinions and professional journalists have developed procedures and standards and practices to counter them. It’s to draw a fine line between reporter and commentary and punditry.”
On a brighter note, she also noted that NPR public radio stations have seen their audience grow 60 percent over the past decade to 34 million people and that doesn’t include users who access NPR shows via mobile devices, the Web and podcasting. She is also proud that NPR has expanded its coverage in international news, the arts and sciences and other topics that have been reduced in other media.
“Our goal is simple,” Schiller told more the luncheon audience. “Deliver more news and information to more people in more ways.”
NOTE: I am a board member of the Atlanta Press Club.