In January, President Bush granted an interview to NPR’s Juan Williams. Last week, the White House rang to offer Williams a second sit-down but NPR declined. Why? NPR’s Ellen Weiss explains.
[ORGAN MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Back in January, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams scored a major “get,” a one on one interview with President Bush. These sitdowns are not easy to come by, especially for NPR, which, alone among major broadcast networks, has not secured a presidential interview for any program host in Bush's six and a half years in office. But if anyone in the White House Press Office fretted about exposing the President to the leftist rantings of Radio Moscow, they needn't have been concerned. [CLIP]: JUAN WILLIAMS: You asked the Democrats on a bipartisan basis to form an advisory council and monitor the war, work with you. They haven't responded at all. What do you take from — [END CLIP] [CLIP]: You know, people are prayin' for you. People, the American people want to be with you, Mr. President. But you just spoke about — [END CLIP] [CLIP]: Mr. President, you've talked about Harry Truman and the challenges that President Truman faced during his time here. He wasn't popular toward the end of his presidency, but history ended up judging him very well. PRESIDENT GEORGE W.BUSH: Mmm. JUAN WILLIAMS: Is that your hope now? [END CLIP] [CLIP]: JUAN WILLIAMS: Mr. President, I want to say thank you from National Public Radio. PRESIDENT GEORGE W.BUSH: Juan, thank you, buddy. Glad you're here.
JUAN WILLIAMS: I appreciate it, sir. PRESIDENT GEORGE W.BUSH: Yes sir. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Last week, the White House offered up the President to NPR, once again, to discuss the 50th anniversary of school desegregation, and once again reached out to Juan Williams. But this time, NPR said, no thanks.
Joining me now is Ellen Weiss, the network's vice president for news. Ellen, first time on OTM. Welcome. ELLEN WEISS: Thank you very much, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Why did you pass? ELLEN WEISS: We passed because after the January interview we thanked the White House and we told them that our future requests were for an interview with NPR. Previous to that, we had asked lots of different people to put in requests for interviews. We had asked Juan, we had asked all the programs, we had asked our White House correspondents.
And the fact of the matter is the White House was fielding several different requests from NPR and picked one of those requests, and we recognized that that was not how we wanted to proceed. We wanted the White House to grant NPR an interview and for NPR to decide who would do that interview, which is similar to how we've been treated by previous administrations. BOB GARFIELD: Now this situation isn't exactly unique. A couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton offered to speak about health insurance with reporter Julie Rovner, and you declined that one, as well, the principle, I guess, being not to be manipulated by the news sources. Is that correct? ELLEN WEISS: Well, the principle being that we have had a request in for Mrs. Clinton for several months now, and while we were, of course, interested in talking to her about her health care plans, we wanted to make sure that we talked to her about a wide variety of issues. And in that case, the Clinton campaign agreed and Melissa Block, the host, one of the hosts of All Things Considered, did the interview. And the interview not only included questions about health care, but about campaign fundraising and about Iraq. BOB GARFIELD: So how much of the decision this time stemmed from that principle, and how much from the criticism the first time around with Juan and the President, that he snagged this rare interview only to serve up a series of softballs? ELLEN WEISS: You know, it stemmed entirely from the principle. As soon as we concluded the interview in January, we had a conversation with the White House, which we made it quite clear to them that we had created the situation, in a sense, for them to decide who did the interview, 'cause we had multiple requests in, and we didn't want to create any more of that confusion any more. We wanted to determine who did the interview. BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that this is all complicated by the fact that Juan also works as an analyst on the GOP house organ known as the Fox News Channel, which by the way, along with Williams himself, criticized your news judgment in declining this presidential interview.
Do you see a conflict of interest developing here? ELLEN WEISS: You know, I think, understandably, you know, Juan was disappointed. This is not about Juan. This is about journalistic integrity and journalistic independence. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Ellen. Thank you very much for joining us. ELLEN WEISS: Thanks, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Ellen Weiss is vice president for news at NPR.