The general manager of WUWM/Milwaukee Public Radio had just taken up the chairmanship of National Public Radio’s board when controversy over the firing of analyst Juan Williams rocked the network last fall.  Last week, Dave Edwards emerged as the public face of the NPR board as it dealt with continued fallout from the controversy. “It’s certainly […]

The general manager of WUWM/Milwaukee Public Radio had just taken up the chairmanship of National Public Radio’s board when controversy over the firing of analyst Juan Williams rocked the network last fall. 

Last week, Dave Edwards emerged as the public face of the NPR board as it dealt with continued fallout from the controversy.

“It’s certainly not the way anyone would imagine that you would transition into a position as chair of a board of directors of a very important company,” Edwards told Pressroom Buzz Tuesday morning with a wry chuckle.

At November’s meeting – Edwards’ first as board chair – the board “had to make some very difficult decisions,” he acknowledges. The board hired an outside consultant, the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, to conduct an investigation. Last week, the board met again and acted on the Weil report by denying NPR CEO Vivian Schiller a bonus and directing a review of the NPR ethics code.

Edwards agrees that Williams was dismissed “hastily.” But based on the Weil report, he said Tuesday, “We looked at was his contract terminated appropriately according to the terms of the contract, and we determined, yes it was.”

The review also shot down accusations that Williams was fired because of pressure from a donor or “some other interest group,” he says.

“The review clearly showed that there was no outside influence, that in fact the termination was made because news management was interpreting the ethics code in such a way that they felt it was necessary to terminate Juan Williams. That was a very important finding.”

Edwards says he was pleased with the review, which was based on confidential interviews of people at NPR and a review of “thousands” of documents and e-mails. “We wanted to make sure that the review was factual, it was objective, and no one could say that the board wasn’t receiving the unvarnished truth. While the ultimate decision and deliberations that the board had were difficult, I think it was made easier because we knew we were getting the facts.”

Another decision coming out of the report was to commission a review of the network’s code of ethics – timely, Edwards says, in light of the way how in the last decade interpretation, comment, opinion and point of view have all been amplified in journalism.

“We all know that there are more platforms available to journalists these days,” Edwards says. “When you and I went to j-school, we were taught that our role as journalists was to merely be an observer and to report what we found and what we saw. … We are now in an environment where, because of so many platforms, blogs, tweets, you name it, reporters are frequently being called on to do more than report the facts.

“I would venture to guess that the ethics codes that are on the books for most news organizations are not fully reflective of journalism as its practiced today.”

So does that foreshadow relaxing those ethics codes to make greater room for personal commentary on the part of reporters? Not necessarily, Edwards says.

“I don’t want to prejudge the work of this committee that Vivian Schiller has put together. I really don’t think what we’re talking about here is relaxing any standards. I think what we’re talking about is a clear understanding of what a journalist can and should do. What is the distinction between a correspondent and a news analyst and a commentator, for example? All three arguably are governed by an ethics code. But what’s the difference? I know what I was taught, but I think there needs to be a clarification of the difference.”

After last week’s events, NPR’s senior VP for news, Ellen Weiss, resigned. Edwards said Tuesday that the board had no role in that decision, and Weiss herself “is on record, both with NPR News and with the LA Times, saying she chose to resign.”

And finally, Edwards hadn’t seen as of Tuesday morning a column last Friday by Richard Prince, following up on the Weiss resignation, that included comments from inside and outside NPR critical of the network on questions of diversity.

Edwards said, though, that diversity itself wasn’t part of the board’s review of the Williams matter – but that it remains an important priority for the network.

“I would say that every organization should be culturally diverse and be open to a wide range of opinions. But this review did not point us in any specific direction as relates to any of that. I think what we did learn from the process is that when important decisions are being made, you want to have a wide variety of viewpoints around the table. By that I don’t mean ideological. When important decisions are made, whether it’s the termination of a high-profile on-air person or any other decision, what you want are people around the table who can offer a variety of perspectives. Did we think about this, what about that, what does this mean. That’s important when you make any kind of decision in any organization.”

Since Schiller was named CEO, he continued, “I think she has made cultural diversity an extremely important element of the company.” Keith Woods, hired by Schiller to oversee NPR’s diversity efforts has “an important job,” Edwards says. “Not only is his he working at NPR, he’s working at stations. He was here at the end of 2010 at WUWM, working with us on a variety of issues pertaining to diversity.”

In all, though, Edwards deflects much of the attention on his fellow NPR board members. “It was tough work for all of the board members, not just me, and I was very impressed with the work that my colleagues put into this important matter.”

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A few weeks ago, Pressroom Buzz offered our skeptical take on the recent PolitiFact item critiquing talk radio’s Charlie Sykes comments about a trip by state officials to the Rose Bowl.

Greg Borowski, the Journal Sentinel editor in charge of the paper’s PolitiFact coverage, took exception to our comments. Here’s his e-mailed response as to why the paper took on the Sykes matter.

PolitiFact focuses on an item “we can evaluate,” Borowski says.

“For Truth-O-Meter items, we don’t do opinions (taxes are too high), we don’t do prospective things (I will never raise taxes). We can do factual statements (I supported a tax cut that created 5,000 new jobs)

“Beyond that, we choose items because of their importance (they are a central issue, for instance, in a political contest) or, as importantly, because they are interesting. They are things that would stop and make the average person wonder: ‘Is that true?’

“The Rose Bowl certainly was on the minds of many. The payout and how UW spends it is an interesting question in its own right – one that I could easily see as a standalone news or sports story. (Frankly, in my mind, much of the value in these items is in the reporting and what the reader learns along the way, not the bottom-line ruling)

“Why did we choose Charlie Sykes? He’s the one who made the statement. If a state lawmaker made a similar claim, we’d certainly have considered that as well. In that regard, we choose items as much on the statement itself as the person making it.”

On criticism that the Sykes and other radio talkers should have been hit harder on some of their comments during the campaign, Borowski had this to say:

“Clearly, we’re not going to spend all of our time looking just at talk show hosts – any more than we’d spend all of our time looking at health care issues, the governor’s promises, or train-related items.

“In the course of the campaign, for instance, we did an item on Rebecca Kleefisch and her statement that [Democrat Tom] Barrett supports a government takeover of health care. We rated it Pants on Fire. Seems to me it’s more important to tackle a statement like that in the context of a widely disseminated TV ad by the Walker campaign in which a statewide candidate makes the claim, instead of a similar statement made by a radio talk show host.

“Frankly, the critics will be the critics no matter what we do. We don’t do a Sykes item, we get criticized. We do a Sykes item, well, it’s the wrong item. Yesterday, the criticism was that we did a Lee Holloway item but buried it in PolitiFact, instead of on the front page. (As if we have not written front-page stories on Lee Holloway and his building inspection troubles.)

“Our focus is on doing high-quality work.”

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