NEW YORK – NPR’s chief executive says she’s sorry for how analyst Juan Williams’ dismissal was handled — but not for firing him. Vivian Schiller sent an apology to National Public Radio staff members on Sunday night and wrote to managers at NPR stations. Her dismissal of Williams for saying on Fox News Channel that he gets nervous when he sees people on a plane with clothing that identifies them as Muslim became a “public relations disaster,” NPR’s ombudsman said.
The question now for NPR is whether the situation will cause lasting damage to public broadcasting permanently, or whether in some ways it might help it.
Williams, who was fired in a phone conversation, deserved a face-to-face meeting, Schiller wrote. She has also expressed regret for saying, after last Wednesday’s firing, that whatever feelings Williams has about Muslims should be between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist — take your pick.”
NPR, which had long been troubled by Williams’ dual role as an analyst at Fox, said his remarks violated its standards of not having on-air personnel giving opinions.
“I stand by my decision to end NPR’s relationship with Juan, but I deeply regret the way I handled it and explained it,” Schiller wrote to staff members.
Williams said Monday that he had not received any apology from NPR or talked to anyone at the station since his dismissal. NPR said Schiller has tried to reach him.
“Obviously, I feel that I should have had the opportunity to supply NPR with the entirety of the context of the statement to make sure they understood, and I am hurt by the suggestion that I need a psychiatrist and am a bigot,” he said.
Schiller’s decision unleashed conservative critics already suspicious of public radio at a time when many stations were soliciting pledges, right after a liberal icon donated $1.8 million, and shortly before an election that could put some of its opponents in a position of power.
NPR had previously asked Williams not to identify himself as an NPR analyst when he appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” or other Fox shows. The journalist said last week he believed his bosses were looking for an excuse to fire him. It looked to many on the outside as if Williams was losing his job for saying something that hardly seemed like a fireable offense.
Yet the decision also eliminated a distraction — NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard said Williams had long been the subject of the most listener complaints — and allowed NPR’s leaders to portray themselves as defenders of old-school journalistic values.
The fallout spread quickly. PBS ombudsman Michael Getler said he had received hundreds of calls or e-mails critical of the decision, even though Williams did not work for public television. When Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina introduces planned legislation to eliminate government funding for public radio, he said it would include television, too.
The Williams dismissal also came shortly after the Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, a frequent target of conservative critics, donated $1.8 million for NPR to hire people to report on government in all 50 states.
One danger for NPR is that Williams’ exit calls attention to the network’s lack of on-air diversity, said Richard Prince, who blogs about diversity for the Maynard Institute of Journalism Education. Williams was one of its few nonwhite personalities. NPR has two programs hosted by black women, an on-air reporter who is black and another who has just been hired, a spokeswoman said.
More than 100 people called or e-mailed Cincinnati’s NPR affiliate, WVXU, with the majority complaining about the decision, said Rich Eiswerth, the station’s CEO, president and general manager. Two people canceled their memberships, he said.
“In my opinion, this is going to be a tempest in a teapot,” Eiswerth said. “The news cycle being what it is — a week from now is a decade in the news cycle — I don’t think it will have a big impact on NPR.”
WAMC radio in Albany, N.Y., said it received several complaints, not necessarily from its members. “There was an organized right-wing attempt to use this to embarrass NPR,” said Alan Chartock, the station’s president. “NPR had it coming, because they really blew it.”
But he said the decision to fire Williams might help fundraising for NPR stations in some parts of the country.
Fourteen percent of NPR listeners identified themselves as Republican, 40 percent said they were Democrats and 41 percent were independent, according to a survey taken in June by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Among all surveyed by Pew, the breakdown was 25 percent Republican, 33 percent Democratic and 34 percent independent.
“With their listeners, (Williams’ exit) would be a positive,” said Robert Lichter, author of “The Media Elite,” a 1986 book that traced political leanings of journalists. “I don’t imagine a lot of their listeners are regular Fox viewers.”
An estimated $3.3 million of NPR’s $166 million budget comes from federal grants, or less than 2 percent, rendering the political threat to strip its public funding a small issue. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting accounts for roughly 10 percent of the NPR affiliate stations’ revenue on average — more for small, rural stations and less in the big cities, said Dana Rehm, NPR spokeswoman.
PBS, meanwhile, gets 15 percent of its budget through CPB funds — making the threat more meaningful.
“As far as members of Congress are concerned, we believe that they will understand the distinction between the different organizations,” said PBS spokeswoman Jan McNamara.
The “vast majority” of people who called NPR to complain are not NPR members, Rehm said. The net effect on individual donations still is not known, she said. NPR has also checked with its corporate benefactors and found most remain steadfast in their support, she added.
NPR hopes that listeners and other journalists will appreciate their efforts to stand strong about removing all appearances that their employees are biased, particularly with the strong cable news trend in the opposite direction. NPR already earned a reputation for prissy purism among some critics when it wouldn’t allow staff members to attend comic Jon Stewart’s Washington rally this weekend, fearing their presence would send a political signal.
“There’s no question that point has been lost in the heat of the entire controversy,” Rehm said.
DAVID BAUDER / The Associated Press