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Was firing Juan Williams a “costly mistake” for NPR?

The review of NPR’s firing of Juan Williams is out. The NPR executive who gave Williams the axe over the telephone has resigned. And NPR’s ombudsman Alicia Shepard warns that the brouhaha could prove “costly” for the radio service.

“The Williams firing was a very costly management mistake on many levels,” Shepard opines. The commentary comes as Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) says he’ll reintroduce his bill to defend NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides support for NPR affiliates.

First, there was the expense of hiring a law firm to investigate the dismissal, Shepard notes. “Might NPR have hired one or two experienced and widely respected journalists or management gurus instead?”

Then “incident also challenged the faith and confidence the staff had in Weiss, and also in CEO Vivian Schiller’s judgment.”

Schiller joined NPR two years ago and up until the firing had done a remarkable job helping NPR regain solid financial footing, boosting morale, improving relations between stations and NPR, and moving the organization into the digital world.

And it may cost 900 public radio stations their Community Service Grants if Republicans succeed in eliminating, or sharply reducing federal funding for public media. In the case of Wisconsin Public Radio, for example, eliminating its funding would cost the station $1 million—7 percent of its budget—and require canceling some programming.  NPR, in turn, gets much of its revenue from the local stations, so cutting funds for them inevitably would damage NPR.

To recap, Williams said this to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News:

Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also, that when the Time Square bomber was at in court, he said that, “The war with Muslims, America’s war with Muslims, is just beginning. The first drop of blood.” I don’t think there is any way to get away from these facts.

NPR’s board said this about Williams’ firing following its investigation, aided by the law firm:

— Williams’ contract was terminated in accordance with its terms.  The contract gave both parties the right to terminate on 30 days’ notice for any reason.  The facts gathered during the review revealed that the termination was not the result of special interest group or donor pressure.  However, because of concerns regarding the speed and handling of the termination process, the Board additionally recommended that certain actions be taken with regard to management involved in Williams’ contract termination.

These additional steps include updating the news service’s code for reporter appearances on other media venues.

Williams was clearly trying to get somewhere beyond  that sound bite in his interview with O’Reilly, emphasizing that the “War on Terror” was not a war against Islam. But the bottom line was that his statement came off as inflammatory and even a bit nutty.

Speaking personally, when I see “people are who in Muslim garb” at airports, I don’t feel afraid of them. I feel sympathy for them because I suspect that they’re afraid of me and everybody else around them.

Playing politics?

In any event, Williams’ comment put NPR in a very difficult situation. The service makes great and inevitably controversial efforts to steer clear of appearing to lean either too far left or right. In public media it’s always easy to say something like “I agree that there was a problem, I just don’t like how management solved it.” It’s much harder to sit in the drivers’ seat and make tough choices.

Fortunately, most NPR subscribers are continuing to support their local stations. Hopefully they’ll agree with this commentary by Craig Aaron of Free Press in response to Lamborn’s move.

Congress is playing politics with a public trust that hundreds of millions of Americans rely on for news, arts and entertainment, and for educational programming for our kids. It’s disgraceful that leaders of the ‘people’s House’ routinely threaten the nation’s most trusted and respected sources of news just to score a few partisan points. Whether you rely on public media for your morning news, music you won’t hear anywhere else, or Sesame Street, you should be outraged by these cynical attacks.

Local PBS and NPR stations reach more than 98 percent of American households, and for some communities, they are the only sources of serious local news and information. They also employ thousands of journalists—at a time when newsrooms around the country are shedding tens of thousands of jobs a year. Leaders in Washington must fight to improve and expand public broadcasting to counteract the collapse of so much commercial journalism and to serve the people corporate media have left behind.

Public media leaders need to take a stand, too. You don’t put a bully in his place by handing over your lunch money and hoping he’ll go away. You have to fight. And when you do, millions and millions of your viewers, listeners and fans will have your back.

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