Juan Williams, NPR and Employee Confidentiality

So much has been written about Juan Williams and NPR, ad nauseum, but in coming across this post on Mediaite, I couldn’t help but wonder about the apology made by NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, to NPR’s program partners.

Dear Program Colleagues,

I want to apologize for not doing a better job of handling the termination of our relationship with news analyst Juan Williams. While we stand firmly behind that decision, I regret that we did not take the time to prepare our program partners and provide you with the tools to cope with the fallout from this episode. I know you all felt the reverberations and are on the front lines every day responding to your listeners and talking to the public

This was a decision of principle, made to protect NPR’s integrity and values as a news organization. Juan Williams’ comments on Fox News last Monday were the latest in a series of deeply troubling incidents over several years. In each of those instances, he was contacted and the incident was discussed with him. He was explicitly and repeatedly asked to respect NPR’s standards and to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings, as that is inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst. After this latest incident, we felt compelled to act. I acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree about timing: whether NPR should have ended its relationship with Juan Williams earlier, on the occasion of other incidents; or whether this final episode warranted immediate termination of his contract.

In any event, the process that followed the decision was unfortunate – including not meeting with Juan Williams in person – and I take full responsibility for that. We have already begun a thorough review of all aspects of our performance in this instance, a process that will continue in the coming days and weeks. We will also review and re-articulate our written ethics guidelines to make them as clear and relevant as possible for our acquired show partners, our staff, Member stations and the public.

The news and media world is changing swiftly and radically; traditional standards and practices are under siege. This requires us to redouble our attention to how we interpret and live up to our values and standards. We are confident that NPR’s integrity and dedication to the highest values in journalism and our commitment to serving as a national forum for the respectful discussion of diverse ideas will continue to earn the support of a growing audience.

I stand by my decision to end NPR’s relationship with Juan Williams, but deeply regret the way I handled and explained it. You have my pledge that the NPR team and I will reflect on all aspects of our actions, and strive to improve them in the future.

What troubles me (other than the politics of the situation), is the national airing of an employee’s poor performance.

An employee’s record is not a public record but rather a confidential agreement between employee and employer. By announcing that Mr. Williams should have been terminated earlier, Ms. Schiller broke that agreement and has now set an unintentional precedent for all NPR employees: “Say something stupid on air and we’ll make sure everyone knows about your performance.”

While I don’t think Ms. Schiller is a Communist (not that it would bother me if she were), nor do I necessarily think that NPR was wrong in terminating Mr. Williams, I do think that she could have handled the situation in a more professional manner.