The Magazine

National Pathetic Radio

CEO Vivian Schiller can’t get her story straight.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Late on Wednesday, October 20, David Folkenflik, the media reporter for National Public Radio, announced that NPR executives had terminated the contract of Juan Williams, who had worked for NPR for ten years, first as a reporter and for the last two years as a “news analyst.”

National Pathetic Radio

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller

Photo Credit: Newscom

In an appearance two days earlier on The O’Reilly Factor, Williams and host Bill O’Reilly were discussing political correctness. Williams confessed to feeling uneasy when he boards an airplane with Muslims. “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.” 

Williams wasn’t celebrating these feelings or telling others that they should feel the same way. Indeed, he punctuated those comments with a warning against treating all Muslims like the “extremists” who carried out the 9/11 attacks. 

Williams was speaking for millions of Americans—many of them no doubt NPR listeners—when he voiced his concerns. But left-wing pressure groups launched a campaign to get him fired—and NPR complied.

Vivian Schiller, CEO of the network, blamed Williams’s termination on his televised comments. “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

The backlash was swift; critics on the left and the right accused NPR of overreach and censorship. Angry listeners flooded the voicemail and email inboxes of NPR stations across the country. Firing Juan Williams for saying something that a majority of Americans believe—and for saying it in a deeply personal, almost apologetic way—had revealed NPR as a heavy-handed enforcer of political correctness.

So Schiller tried again. By midday Thursday, she had revised NPR’s official rationale for firing Williams. In an appearance at the Atlanta Press Club, she claimed that it wasn’t so much the substance of Williams’s confession on O’Reilly that was the problem, but the fact that he had offered an opinion at all.

“A news analyst cannot continue to credibly analyze the news if they are expressing opinions about divisive issues,” Schiller said. “It’s that simple. And the same would go with anybody.”

It’s hard to understand how someone with such an elevated title could say something so profoundly stupid. Juan Williams offers his opinion about divisive issues almost every single day on Fox News, where he has made regular appearances since 1997. If doing so were a firing offense, he would have been canned years ago.

But Schiller’s rationale for dumping Williams is disingenuous for another reason. Several other NPR personalities—news analysts as well as reporters—regularly express opinions about divisive issues. Most notably: NPR’s legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Totenberg has a long history of voicing support for left-wing causes and politicians. But it’s her intolerance of conservatives that stands out. In 1995, she famously said that “if there is retributive justice,” Jesse Helms or one of his grandchildren would get AIDS as payback for his having opposed government funding for research.

But we don’t need to go that far back to see that Totenberg regularly violates the principle Schiller cited in firing Williams.

In just the past two months, Totenberg has called Michelle Obama someone who gives voters “warm and fuzzy” feelings. She praised Obama for attacking Republicans as obstructionists and claimed that Democrats “have opposition candidates who may say stupid things, but that doesn’t seem to matter. People are too angry and the economy is too bad in their view.” (In their view? How is the economy in her view?) When someone proposed that President Obama hire a chief of staff who can work across the aisle, Totenberg said: “The question is whether that aisle is crossable.” When she was asked whether the war in Afghanistan was worth it, she answered with one word: “No.” She called Bill Clinton the “greatest politician I’ve ever seen.” She ripped the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as scandalous and something that will lead to the next “Watergate.” And she decried the fact that the Democratic party includes 31 members who would support extending the Bush tax cuts for all taxpayers. She is, in virtually every appearance she makes on Inside Washington, by turns a liberal ideologue and a partisan hack.

The truth Schiller won’t admit is that Juan Williams wasn’t fired for expressing his views. He was fired for violating NPR-think—for having the “wrong” views and expressing them in the “wrong” forum. For years, NPR executives have grumbled about their reporters and analysts appearing on Fox News. In 2008, they changed Williams’s role at NPR from that of a staffer to a contract employee to give themselves more distance from Fox.

On its website, NPR proudly touts the fact that Totenberg is a panelist on Inside Washington, a talkshow distributed to public broadcasting stations. But the bio for Mara Liasson, NPR’s national political correspondent, doesn’t mention the fact that she is a Fox News contributor.

Why the double-standard? Mostly because NPR execs disapprove of Fox. But there’s something deeper, too.

Schiller and other NPR executives don’t see liberal views as opinion but as analysis supported by facts. So when Juan Williams was defending the Obama administration from partisan Republicans or criticizing the Bush administration for misleading about the Iraq War, he wasn’t expressing opinions, he was stating facts. Within the NPR mothership, who doesn’t get “warm and fuzzy” feelings from Michelle Obama? Totenberg’s opinion comes across to her bosses as no more controversial than saying that water is wet.

NPR’s audience for the most part shares the ideology and the clubbiness. In a recent survey of NPR listeners conducted for the network by Smith-Geiger, 50 percent said its “progressive” politics was one of NPR’s strengths. (Only 18 percent of those listeners found it “too liberal.”) When NPR surveyed nonlisteners, 37 percent said NPR “takes itself too seriously,” 33 percent said it is “elitist,” 29 percent said it is “too pretentious.”

This insularity leads to bad and cowardly decisions. And worse. Addressing the press from the friendly confines of the Atlanta Press Club, Schiller chose a particularly colorful way to suggest that Williams should have kept his mouth shut. “His feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between him and his, you know, psychiatrist or his publicist. Take your pick.” (A spokesman later said Schiller was sorry for this dig.)

As she no-so-subtly questioned Williams’s sanity, Schiller allowed a smirk to appear on her face, as if she were telling an inside joke in the NPR boardroom. It was a telling moment. It was a disgrace. NPR terminated the wrong contract.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers