WASHINGTON – After boasting about NPR's record ratings, loyal listeners and commitment to real journalism, NPR head Vivian Schiller was forced to address some of the controversies that have placed the media organization in the spotlight over the last several months.
On Monday, Schiller admitted to making mistakes, including the way NPR handled the firing of Juan Williams and the erroneous reporting on the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"We handled the situation badly," the president and CEO said at the National Press Club. "We acted too hastily and we made some mistakes."
Longtime news analyst Williams was fired in October, two days after discussing terrorism on Fox News' "O'Reilly Factor."
On the show, Williams stated, "Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
He also warned Bill O'Reilly against generalizing about Muslims, just as Christians shouldn't all be blamed for the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
At that time, Schiller told Fox, "A news analyst cannot continue credibly to analyze the news if they are expressing opinions about divisive issues."
Williams, however, pointed out that other "opinions" have been tolerated on NPR, including Andrei Codrescu's past remark that "the evaporation of 4 million [Christians] who believe this crap would leave the world an instantly better place." The commentator was discussing belief of the rapture.
Reflecting back, Schiller said they made mistakes and will make sure it doesn't happen again.
She was pressed by National Press Club president Mark Hamrick to elaborate on what "processes" were put in place, after she answered vaguely several times.
She made note of the fact that NPR has undertaken a review of its news code of ethics and will be making some changes hopefully by spring. One of the recommendations made by a task force that NPR is considering is ending the practice of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets on long-term contracts.
Williams was both a senior new analyst for Fox and a commentator with NPR. He was with NPR for 10 years.
Since Williams' firing, calls to defund NPR have been made. The House voted to eliminate all federal funding for public radio and public television.
Though taxpayer dollars represent on average 10 percent of NPR's budget, Schiller estimated, she said it plays "a critical role in generating the other 90 percent (from listeners, philanthropy and corporate) that make their broadcast possible."
"If federal dollars went away, the impact on our ability to serve the public ... then we would be going backward and retreating on this 44-year investment the American people have made," Schiller maintained. "The small amount of money that goes for public broadcasting ... is too critical to give up, I believe."
After being grilled on the Williams case, Schiller responded to other issues, such as NPR's erroneous reporting that Giffords was killed in the shooting in Arizona. It "was a mistake, plain and simple."
"There's no excuse for it," she added. "I wouldn't say that it represents anything other than the one mistake that it is."
She also addressed criticisms that NPR is too liberal (while noting that they also get called out on being "too conservative"), saying "there's no question, it's a perception issue" rather than an execution problem.
Regarding the lack of diversity on staff and among interviewees, Schiller said initiatives are underway "to further diversify staff, and the people we interview and our audience."
Schiller, who formerly served at The New York Times Company and at CNN Productions, has served as president and CEO of NPR since January 2009. NPR boasts four consecutive quarters of record ratings and currently draws 34 million listeners every week.