Schiller, NPR chief executive, resigns after 'distraction'

Schiller, NPR chief executive, resigns after 'distraction'

March 10th, 2011 in Local - Breaking News

By ELIZABETH JENSEN and BRIAN STELTER

c.2011 New York Times News Service

NPR said Wednesday that the public radio organization's board had accepted the resignation of its chief executive, Vivian Schiller.

Her resignation comes at a precarious time for public broadcasting, as Republicans in Congress are trying to strip NPR and its member stations of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. NPR has been consumed by controversy as of late; most recently, a Republican filmmaker released a video Tuesday that showed one of NPR's fundraising executives repeatedly criticizing Republicans and Tea Party supporters in a conversation with people posing as prospective donors.

That incident, as well as an earlier one involving Juan Williams, who was dismissed by NPR last fall, "became such a distraction to the organization it hindered Vivian Schiller's ability to lead the organization going forward," Dave Edwards, the chairman of NPR's board of directors, said Wednesday.

Joyce Slocum, NPR's senior vice president for legal affairs and general counsel, will serve as interim chief executive while a committee seeks a permanent replacement for Schiller. There was no timetable given for the executive search.

Edwards said that Schiller offered to resign "if that was the board's will, and the board decided that it was." That said, "This was a very difficult decision for her and a very difficult decision for the board to accept," Edwards said.

He praised Schiller's leadership through tough economic times and her "vision and energy."

Schiller said she spoke with NPR's board members Tuesday evening, about 12 hours after the release of the video, and then had a conversation with Edwards later in the evening. She declined to elaborate on the conversations.

"I obviously had no prior knowledge" of the fundraising executive's comments, "and nothing to do with them, and disavowed them as soon as I learned of them all. But I'm the CEO, and the buck stops here," she said in an interview Wednesday.

She added, "I'm hopeful that my departure from NPR will have the intended effect of easing the defunding pressure on public broadcasting."

Schiller has been campaigning in recent months against potential funding cuts. Schiller took the helm at NPR in January 2009. Before joining the organization, she was a senior vice president at The New York Times Co., where she was general manager of nytimes.com.

She was respected by many at NPR for helping re-orient the organization in the digital media age. But she was chastised by the NPR board for her handling of Williams' dismissal last fall, and she recognized Tuesday that the video released by Republican filmmaker James O'Keefe was a new hurdle for her and her organization.

In the video, the NPR fundraising executive, Ronald Schiller, who is not related to Vivian Schiller, was heard telling people posing as Muslim philanthropists that the Republican Party had been "hijacked" by the Tea Party and that Tea Party supporters were "seriously racist, racist people." Ronald Schiller, who was already scheduled to leave NPR soon to take a job at the Aspen Institute, said Tuesday night that he would leave immediately.

On Wednesday, the Aspen Institute said Ronald Schiller had decided not to take the new job.

"In light of the controversy surrounding his recent statements, he does not feel that it's in the best interests of the Aspen Institute for him to come work here," the group said.

Echoing Vivian Schiller's disavowal of the executive's comments, Edwards said Wednesday that he found it to be "upsetting to my core."

Speaking with reporters on a conference call, Edwards acknowledged that Vivian Schiller "was not responsible for many of the mistakes that were made" at NPR. But he added, "The CEO for any organization is accountable for all of the actions of the organization."

In a separate interview, Schiller spoke fondly of her tenure at the organization.

"I arrived at NPR in January 2009, and the organization was in terrible financial straits," she said. Now "it's in the black and expanding its journalism and it's breaking new ground in terms of digital journalism."

Schiller said that while she alone could not take all the credit, "I had a very clear vision for NPR that I hope will continue, and I'm very proud of the work that I've done."

On Wednesday, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican majority leader, showed no sign of easing the pressure on public broadcasting.

"Our concern is not about any one person at NPR, rather it's about millions of taxpayers," he said in a statement. "NPR has admitted that they don't need taxpayer subsidies to thrive, and at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them."

The Obama administration has resisted the calls for cuts to public broadcasting and has budgeted for a slight increase to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's overall budget, which is then divvied up to hundreds of local radio and television stations.

"We think they are a worthwhile and important priority, as our budget makes clear," the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said Wednesday.