NPR’s independent review of the Juan Williams firing found that the termination was “not the result of special interest group or donor pressure,” but they did find fault with the way it was handled. It was enough fault to lead to the dismissal of Ellen Weiss, senior vice president of news, who was involved in the decision to terminate his contract and delivered word to him over the phone.
Whether or not you agree that Williams crossed the line in expressing his fear of people in “Muslim garb” on “The O’Reilly Factor,” there’s near unanimity that his firing was poorly handled. For anyone involved in lobbying for government support of public broadcasting, this was one headache that NPR did not need at this time, with the wave of fiscal austerity coming over Congress.
I suspect that with Williams continuing to chide NPR in his new multi-million dollar role on Fox — today he said the org was trying to “demean me and make me appear like a lunatic” (video below) — this is not going to easily just blow over.
While the whole episode was about journalistic standards in an age of partisan personality, it’s also about public money. Last month, public radio withstood a congressional maneuver to eliminate all funding, but that was during the lame duck session, and with the Republican House majority coming into power this week chances are that was just the start of a long and wrenching budget process.
Support for public broadcasting is strong on Capitol Hill, and it has withstood many other attacks in years past. Ken Bode, the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, recently wrote, “There is too much value in public broadcasting, too much support for NPR to be distracted, even in this toxic political environment.” But the Williams episode gives those philosophically opposed the public funding of broadcast journalism a more incendiary argument, one to counter the idea that NPR’s caliber is at such a level that it needs support outside the commercial sphere.