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NPR Cancels CEO Vivian Schiller: Right Decision, Wrong Reason [Update]

Companies will sometimes force out a CEO because things have gone so wrong that there's no other way to kick-start change. Unfortunately, that's not why NPR ousted its CEO, Vivian Schiller. When the board "accepted [her] resignation," it did the worst thing directors can do: It reacted in a futile effort to avoid embarrassment, not as part of an action plan to correct problems in the organization.

The trigger was a gotcha video by conservative activist James O'Keefe that captured NPR fund raising executive Ron Schiller (no relation to the CEO) calling the Tea Party xenophobic and racist. NPR fired him even though he'd already given notice that he was leaving for a new job.

The executive was egged on by people pretending to represent a Muslim group, who at least early on seemed to offer some leading statements. The video was obviously edited and blanks out half the frame. Very little said by the other NPR executive present -- or by the two people sent by O'Keefe -- didn't appear. That said, a blanket dismissal of a political group in such an offhand manner indicates a significant attitude problem, and one that may be systemic in the organization. Not good if you want to lay claim to even-handed journalism.

The problem from NPR's view is that such a public statement doesn't fit comfortably with the brand it wants to promote. That's why the network fired Juan Williams for saying that people on a plane "who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims" make him nervous. Is that small-minded?

That rocked NPR, and Vivian Schiller's handling of the Williams issue was highly controversial, especially when it resulted in renewed calls to cut government funding for the radio network. The video this week pushed NPR's board over the edge. In the morning, it said that Schiller resigned. By mid-day, NPR Board Chairman Dave Edwards made it clear that the board dismissed her because:

The events that took place [particularly Ron Schiller's statements and Juan Williams' dismissal] became such a distraction to the organization that in the board's mind it hindered Vivian Schiller's ability to lead the organization going forward.
In short, she had become an embarrassment. Not a single thought to whether there was a systemic cultural problem at the organization. It's not the first time that NPR's board dumped a CEO. In 2008, it fired Ken Stern, apparently without warning.

Clearly, some kind of change is needed at NPR. But when two CEOs get the axe in just three years, there's a deeper problem in the organization. All the NPR board has done is to cover its collective derriere. NPR needs some significant organizational work. However, it won't get it, because the board wants to believe that the fault, dear Brutus, is in our network stars, not in ourselves.

[Update: Jack Shafer at Slate has a marvelous take on what makes the managerial culture so toxic at NPR. Making up much of the board of directors are the heads of public radio station chiefs. They have their own agendas that are about keeping local and federal funding levels up. Not that is a foolish thing for a public radio exec to worry about. But when the funding comes before the journalistic business, you get a committee that runs around trying to appease critics. Definitely worth the read, as it shows how dysfunctional the organization is.]

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Image: morgueFile user karencastens, site standard license.
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