NPR Ombudsman talked about Vivian Schiller's resignation and Ron Schiller's Tea Party remarks

Mar 09, 2011

NPR Ombudsman Lisa Shepard answered questions about the resignation NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, the ethical implications of then-NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller's recent remarks about conservatives, and media ethics.

I'm Alicia Shepard, NPR's Ombudsman. Glad to be here today answering questions.

Was Ron Schiller's offense his harboring of demeaning views of Tea Party members, or his revelation of his views? If the former, aren't there lots of people within NPR who'd likewise need to be ushered out? If the latter, isn't NPR just protecting concealment of bias?

Hi there. Certainly he wasn't fired for harboring negative views about conservatives. it was the unprofessional manner that cost him his job.  Who blabs to total strangers in public about their personal biases? Who doesn't vet a prospective donor before meeting. PBS got the same offer and turned it down.

Would the comments made by Ron Schiller be considered "off the record"? If so, why should there be a prohibition against a journalist expressing their personal opinion in a private conversation

Because Ron Schiller wasn't holdling a private conversation. he was meeting in public representing NPR.  His personal views should be kept to himself. his job WAS to sell donors on NPR's commitment to fairness, accuracy, thoroughness, and diversity of voices. he hardly did that.

Look, we all have personal views, but journalists and people at Mr. Schillers' level need to be professional, and he was anything but.

How can NPR continue to be viewed as an objective news source after continuing issues such as this one?

NPR will go on trying to do the news straight ahead today and the next day.  People bring their own biases to listening to the news.  You will have to decide if you think they still are fair.

I happen to think that many journalists tend toward liberal thinking, but then known that.  They go out of their way to compensate, to reach out to those with opposing views, to be professional in making sure everyone gets heard.  They do not have an agenda, at least MSM reporters do not

I am a mid road independent and yet I now cannot help but believe NPR is very very liberal. Based on whats happened over the past 6 months why should anyone believe NPR when its says its neither political or partisan. These shocking revelations are from senior management, not some low level employee at some affiliate.

Senior excecutives at NPR have made some serious mistakes in the last six months.  Working inside NPR I can see it's very disheartening to the reporters, hosts, producers.  They are angry that top managment hasn't handled NPR more carefully.  It's a complicated situation.  I'm basically suggesting you separate the executive staff from the editorial staff, many of whm have been here for decades.

Given that NPR stands revealed as a politically partisan organization, how in good conscience can tax money be used to support it?

First, Ron Schiller and Vivian Schiller are NOT related. 

Secondly, the federal gov funds PUBLIC RADIO AND TV STATIONS.  not NPR.  it gives money to the stations, and the stastions can use that money to buy NPR programming.

There's a lot more on your public radio station than NPR programming.  Like Fresh Air? Praire Home Companion? Market Place. Car Talk.  NONE are produced by NPR

Will NPR offer some sort of platform to the Tea Party or at least more favorable coverage to demonstrate that Ron's comments truly don't reflect the organization's beliefs?

As you might imagine, I've gotten lots of phone calls from members of the Tea Party sharing their degrees.  I think I find what Ron Schiller said about a lot of people being uneducated to be the most offensive.

And, its helpful to remember that Ron Schiller is NOT a newsman.  He had no input in the news output.  His views, as he said on the video, are his personal views. 

I was surprised to hear an NPR executive, meeting with people for the first time over lunch, have so little discretion. How can the chief fundraiser for NPR be confiding in total strangers? The money that NPR receives from federal funding is significant and for the NPR chief fundraiser to be talking as if it isn't is truly unfortunate for NPR.

Amen to that.  That is what baffles me most. When you first meet a complete stranger do you share your personal feelings about conservatives, liberals, politics?  UNBELIEVABLE.  

And then to not closely vet them.

AND, how about this. When the Washington Post was undergoing so much criticism during Watergate, the venerable Katherine Graham sat a few reporters and editors down and said, "Be Careful.  People will be out to get us, to trick us. "

Ron Schiller should have been thinking like that.  So should Betsy Liley, in charge of instittuional giving. She's on administrative leave. I'm not sure how she could continue effectively for NPR.

Why has that not been part of the discussion?

Not sure what the question is?  that RS is a registered Republican?

People who attack Public Broadcasting have pointed out the salary of Ms Schiller , I believe about $450,000 per year, as being excessive. Certainly that is a a good amount of compensation compared to nothing. However, isn't her salary rather low for running a large broadcasting operation like NPR, as compared to the "private" broadcasting sector?

As you know Ms. Schiller resigned this morning, so she isn't  getting a salary.  But her salary was low for a broadcasting outlet.  So are the salaries of NPR hosts.  But then, they seem high to many who aren't making in the 300,000 or $400,000 range. 

Why was Vivian Schiller forced out after Ron Schiller's mistake? Surely she had nothing to do with that meeting in the video. And why wasn't she forced out after the Juan Williams affair, which she at least signed off on? Is this just delayed punishment for Juan Williams?

Running a large news organization is complicated.  I would ask you to read Paul Farhi take on what happened withformer SVP for news Ellen Weiss and Juan Williams. It's such a complicated story.  So much has happened since October. I can hardly absorb it. 

Schiller was kept on after Juan becasue the NPR board of directors said they had confidence in her. She has done an amazing job of "rescuing" NPR and bringing it into the digital age.  When she arrived two years ago, NPR was in a financial mess. She was instrumental in changing that. she also had a vision about moving NPR to where listeners/readers are wehther on air, mobile phones, ipads, etc. 

But she also hired Ron Schiller.  And the board decided, according to its chair, Dave Edwards, that she had become a distraction. And NPR has the fight of its life on its hands.

Given Ron Schiller's candid comments that were clearly anti-conservative and anti-semitic, why should the American public believe that his comments weren't reflective of the political mindset of NPR staff in general?

Becasue I don't think one person's personal opinions, particularly one who was here for only 18 months, reflects NPR and public radio's mission to servie the public.  While I am independent of NPR, I do get paid by NPR, but I don't share Mr. Schiller's thinking.  I found it offensive.

How many Republicans work for NPR?

Don't know.  I wasn't asked that when I joined NPR.  And I'm not sure it's relevant. Diversity is more than political beliefs.  I'm more interested in how many people NPR has working for it who have blue collar backgrounds, or were  in the military, or come from Nebraska. 

Seriously, how much editorial control do the people "in charge" (CEO, VPs, Etc.) have over what is reported/covered on NPR? Do they muffle any opposing views from their journalists?

Believe it or not -- and it is a leap of faith -- the funders, the top management executives and underwriters have NO control over content. anymore than the advertisers do over WaPo content.  I can say w/ certainty, that Ron Schiller never influenced the news, or even requested that NPR do a particular story. it's just not the way it works.  if you look at the video, you will hear Liley talk about getting funding from a Jewish group, and that they donate but dont' always like how NPR covers Israel.

So what does this mean for future federal funding? Is this the nail in the coffin?

Have to answer the old: it remains to be seen.  Have to remember that funding goes to the entire public broadcasting system. about $400 million.  TV gets 75 percent and Radio 25 percent.  It would be devasting for the funding to be suddenly cut.  Stations have to plan. if they were going to do any cutting, I would hope it would be gradual.

Do you think that NPR has integrity if it fires officers who express personal opinions in private that offend a group of partisan politicians?

Yes. I think NPR is sending the message that we all need to learn: We live in public. The microphone is always on.  Someone who works in NPR news or is part of the management team represents NPR and has to always be thinking about NPR's credibility.

I hope you notice that I use NPR in the third person.  I am independent.  I have a contract.  I will be leaving May 31.  So it's hard to fire me for being honest.

How much does it cost my local NPR affiliate WFDD to purchase the Diane Rheem Show and/or Car Talk from NPR ? What is the annual supplement my member station receives from CPB ?

Good question. The cost of programming depends on the number of listeners. SO for WAMU in DC to buy Car Talk or Fresh Air (both independently produced) the rate would be more expensive for WAMU than for a smaller station.  Make sense?  If you want to know more, email me at ashepard@npr.org

What is Ron Schiller's status at NPR at this present moment?

Ron Schiller had initially given notice last week to go work at the Aspen Institute. his last day was to be in May.  But last night, he was forced to resign effective immediately.  This morning, Vivian Schiller resigned effective immediately.

So now NPR has no head of the news department, no CEO, and no head of fundraising. that''s tough. but listen to All THings Consider tonight, and because everyone in news is a pro, I doubt you will hear a hint of all the turmoil inside.

What has NPR done over the last few months to promote racial diversity in it's reporters since Juan was fired?

Diversity in all aspects is tremendously important to me. I advocate for it all the time and have been vocal internally about the need for more diverse voices ON AIR.  I wrote about this in an Ombudsman column www.npr.org/ombudsman last spring. April 2, 2010

And NPR hired Keith Woods, from the Poynter Institute,  and he's now a vice president and pushing diversity. They also hired Luis Clemons, who is a senior editor in charge of JUST trying to get more diverse voices on the air.

In terms of male/female, NPR is pretty even.  They have recently hired two African American male reporters. 

This was a priority for Vivian Schiller, and she really did make things happen in this area during her tenure.

Are executives like Ron Schiller held to the same ethical standards as NPR's journalists? Aren't folks in the back offices also required to maintain objectivity? I know he wasn't a reporter, and has to court potential donors, but shouldn't they also be keenly aware of lines they shouldn't cross? This man worked for the most prestigious news organization on the planet. He of all people should have known that everybody's packing a video camera in their cell phone for Christ's sake. How did this happen?

Of course, he was required to be objective.  He knew what lines shoudln't be crossed. I still can't believe you would divulge so much to a stranger. That's what I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around.   He was a fundrasier at Univ. of Chicago and reputed to be excellent.  He had to have known better.  Makes you also wonder what else he said to potential donors.  I hope nothing like this.

Are Ron and Vivian Schiller related? Is everyone at NPR a Schill (for the left)?

NOT even distantly related.

Given your answer on tax money, what is NPRs official position on federal funding (of stations apparently not NPR), and please justify that position.

As Ombudsman - -just like yours at the Post -- I do not represent NPR's position.  I am an advocate for public radio stations and they are the ones that get the funding, and I hope it will continue becasue they provide a valuable news source. NPR is a percentage of their 24 hour clock.  Congress doesn't directly fund NPR. 

How do you think NPR affiliate stations should handle the Ron Schiller and Vivian Schiller issues during fundraising?

I think Full Disclosure and Honesty are key values right now and that local stations should make the relationship between NPR and them very clear.  It's a partnership. But the local staiotns have partnerships with Marketplace and BBC as well.  What Ron Schiller said, I beleieve, does not reflect the values of public radio.  I've been lucky enough to visit dozens of pubradio stations aroudn the coutnry, and they are some of the hardest working, deeply caring people. 

According to the news story, Mr. Schiller made his controversial statements in front of an NPR colleague. Is it reasonable for a neutral observer to conclude that Mr. Schiller was not concerned that he might offend his co-worker? Personally, I can't imagine making such strong statements (about anything) in front of any of my co-workers, regardless of where were might be. Is this really the sort of office banter one might expect working at NPR?

I am surprised too that she didn't speak up. But then it was a heavily edited video.  original version is Two hours. And good for James O'Keefe for putting that up at Project Veritas.  So it's possible Betsy Liley did object and that was edited out.

When I first heard this story, I immediately asked Ron Schiller if it were true. I wanted to make sure he wasn't being "Shirley SHerroded" by NPR.   Mr. Schiller acknowledged that he said some "stupid" things.  But it's critical that the news media not jump on a video w/out making sure it is accurate. w/ the kind of tools we have today, it's so easy to edit in a way that doesn't reflect the reality.

Do you foresee any possibility of the new management team offering Juan Williams his job back?

First question: Would Juan Williams want the job back?  And you know, I have no idea what is going to happen next.   Monday, Vivian Schiller was speaking about the virtures of public media and NPT at the National Press Club, and her folks were complimenting her on how well she did.

The next day, the Ron Schiller video appears.  Today, Vivian Schiller resigns.    I'm just watching.  Making no predictions.

Considering npr staff, is unbiased reporting possible?

You are making pretty big assumptons about NPR staff, and overlooking the fact that they -- like the reporters at WaPo are professionals. 

But does this recent event make doing their jobs more dificult? You bet. 

I note that Mr. Schiller is not a journalist but a fund raiser. Can you tell me how or if NPR standards apply to employees who are not journalists.

Have answered this earlier.  We live in public. Everyone who works for NPR in the news and top managment at least, represents NPR.  Right now NPR is reviewing its ethics code to determine whether it applies to support staff, engineers and others where it's not as clear cut. 

But, at end of the day, the only true asset NPR has is its credibility, and it needs to be protected by everyone who works there.

I just want to say I support you in one of the weirdest, hardest and most demanding jobs on the planet. Good luck. Wear comfortable shoes and take your cootie spray.... And please, don't quit!

Bless you.

Why is the Ombudsman dealing with this issue? It seems to me that you are simply functioning in a PR role. If so, perhaps NPR should have sent a different person to WaPo to smooth out this nightmare?

I'm not trying to smooth out anything.  I'm the representative for NPR's audience.  My job is to find answers to the questions posed by listners and readers.  If I were trying to do PR, I wouldn't be so critical of NPR.  I am very disappointed in all that has happened in the last five months. I think the top management needs to take much better care of NPR.   Would a PR person say that? Would a PR person say in print that they poorly handled Juan Williams the day he was fired?

Isn't it illegal for these people to misrepresent themselves and tape without consent? Will NPR or Ron Schiller be taking legal action against them?

That depends on the federal and state laws, which differ.  In some states, only one party has to be aware of the taping.  In others, both.  Not sure about DC, but regardless of the legality, the damage has been done.

Thanks for your fascinating questions. I certainly didn't expect to spend the day this way.  I care about public broadcasting and NPR, or I wouldn't have taken the job.  NPR will go on, just like all companies do when something bad happens.   NPR will make other mistakes, but I feel confident those mistakes will never be intentional.  If there's a message in all this,  it's that with the Internet, we all need to be careful. We all need to think beforew we hit send. We all need to be careful in public.   Would I even be writing here if  Mr. O'Keefe's video hadn't gone viral on the web?  But that's what happened.

I invite you to comment on my just posted blog piece about this:  www.npr.org/ombudsman  or contact me directly at ashepard@npr.org

In This Chat
Lisa Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard, aka Lisa, joined NPR in October 2007 as Ombudsman. She has worked as a journalist for three decades, including as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and a contributor to American Journalism Review, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Washingtonian and People magazines. She has taught journalism for the last six years and is currently teaching media ethics to Georgetown University grad students. She is the author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate. She also spent three years sailing through the South Pacific with her family in the late 1980s.
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