Behind the NPR Fiasco
by Jim Walsh | Posted April 09, 2011
“You who think that you’re so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves?”
— Frédéric Bastiat
When a fundraising scandal recently ensnared National Pubic Radio, some opinion-makers rushed to revel at the arrogant organization’s woes. I resisted not because I’m a spoilsport but because, living all of my adult life on the West Coast, I’ve absorbed enough Zen philosophy to give wide berth to schadenfreude. It can be a prologue to one’s own misfortunes.
Some weeks have passed, now, and it’s safe to consider what happened. And why it matters.
The facts of the scandal are fairly straightforward. James O’Keefe — the right-wing media provocateur — had a couple of colleagues pose as members of a U.S. Islamic group interested in donating money to NPR. These representatives of the “Muslim Education Action Center” were put in touch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s head of fundraising, who arranged a lunch meeting. The fake Muslims came to the meeting equipped with hidden audio and video devices.
Over the course of the two-hour lunch, they said outrageous things about Israel, Republicans, and the Tea Party. Schiller, practiced in the obsequious manners of big-dollar fundraising toadyism, agreed and agreed. He agreed to some things that implied NPR has an anti-Israel bias and other things that indicated he and his colleagues are insecure strivers with naught but contempt for middle America.
For all his sucking up, Schiller didn’t get the $5 million check. The fake Muslims said they had a few things to think over first. And they hustled out with their material.
In a telephone call recorded after the lunch, the fake Muslims asked Schiller’s lieutenant (NPR’s “senior director of institutional giving”) whether she could have the $5 million donation treated as anonymous. The fake Muslims claimed that they were concerned about being audited by the government; she replied that this was possible and that she would do everything she could to obscure the gift’s provenance.
O’Keefe whittled the two hours of video into an 11-minute excerpt. And he released his excerpt to the internet and television news outlets, which repeated snippets of the NPR fundraiser sucking up to the Muslim Brotherhood and calling the Tea Party a collection of ignorant bigots.
Outrage — some genuine, some clearly manufactured — followed. And a couple of obsequious fundraisers weren’t going to satisfy the establishment Right’s partisan bloodlust. Besides, before his lunch with the fake Muslims, Schiller had already announced that he was leaving NPR to take a similar post with the left-leaning Aspen Institute. So, the Right turned its attention to a bigger target: NPR’s chief executive, a woman named Vivian Schiller (who is, as noted repeatedly, no relation to Ron Schiller).
Schiller’s boast that NPR didn’t need the government money that it normally receives played into the hands of NPR’s political adversaries.
Vivian Schiller had been an executive at the New York Times Company before moving to NPR and had been on the radar of establishment Republicans for some time. She rose to the top of their hit lists after firing NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams for . . . well, for splitting his time between NPR and Fox News.
On March 9, NPR released this statement from its Board of Directors’ Chairman Dave Edwards:
“It is with deep regret that I tell you that the NPR Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Vivian Schiller as President and CEO of NPR, effective immediately. The Board accepted her resignation with understanding, genuine regret, and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.”
Edwards said the decision to part ways with Vivian Schiller proved the Board’s “commitment to NPR’s standards.”
While the organizational elite talked about standards, NPR’s trench diggers made like the Ministry of Truth — rewriting history to justify throwing Vivian Schiller under the bus. According to NPR’s own media correspondent, David Folkenflik: “some at NPR found Vivian Schiller’s leadership under fire wanting.” And he quoted one longtime network employee saying “we have not been well served by recent management. Many of our managers are talented and solid, but others have not been and have exposed us to some terrible, terrible hits.”
All of this was petty distraction. The big issue looming behind the quibbles over O’Keefe’s video antics—one Schiller’s embarrassing comments and the other Schiller’s shaky management—was, of course, money. When the New York Times reported on Schiller and Schiller’s fumbling pas de deux, it tried to set the frame:
“In the midst of a brutal battle with Republican critics in Congress over federal subsidies, NPR has lost its chief executive after yet another politically charged embarrassment.”
One of Ron Schiller’s most embarrassing comments on the O’Keefe video was a boast that NPR didn’t need the government money that it normally receives. This played into the hands of NPR’s political adversaries.
For years, establishment Republicans have been calling for cuts in the federal funds given to NPR and its parent entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These calls have grown louder since control of the House of Representatives changed hands in 2010. And they’ve changed from “cut the government funding” to “eliminate the government funding.” The day that Vivian Schiller resigned, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor released the following statement:
“Our concern is not about any one person at NPR, rather it’s about millions of taxpayers. NPR has admitted that they don’t need taxpayer subsidies to thrive, and at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them.”
NPR has long played Enron-like accounting games when explaining how much government money it receives each year.
Like most flimflam artists, its executives prefer to talk in percentages than absolute dollars. They say that NPR only gets 2 or 3% . . . or maybe 5% . . . of its operating budget in the form of direct government assistance. Well, sort of direct; the money goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting first and then to NPR. Strictly speaking, this explanation is true. But it’s also incomplete.
NPR counts more heavily on programming fees collected from its “member stations,” in most cases low-on-the-dial FM operations affiliated in some manner with colleges or universities around the country. These fees — which account for somewhere between 15 and 25% of NPR’s operating budget — are usually paid with federal government grants made to the local stations.
It’s easy to rationalize an earnest, middlebrow radio network as, well, maybe not the worst waste of $40 or $50 million in taxpayer money.
If establishment Republicans like Rep. Cantor have their way and eliminate the federal subsidies of NPR and its member stations, the network will lose as much as a third of its revenue base. Despite the tough talk, that would make a major dent in its business model. In absolute dollars, NPR’s annual budget has ranged between $150 and $170 million in recent years; so the cut would be something like $40 or $50 million from that.
Establishment Republicans have an intricately-wrought animosity to National Public Radio.
As several sharp media observers (most notably, Timothy Noah of the online magazine Slate.com) have pointed out, Republicans have been calling for cuts to NPR’s government subsidies for decades. The cuts rarely ever take effect. Instead, the politicians and network dance a kind of statist tango in which the two sides exchange insults, realize a mutual utility and then decide to coexist rather than taking action against one another.
To be sure, NPR has a left-wing bias. This bias is most evident in the network’s framing of topics in the news — the production-booth decisions about establishing the terms of debate on a particular topic, defining the parameters of coverage, formulating the questions asked of interview subjects. And, perhaps most important, determining which topics aren’t covered at all.
And NPR’s coverage of the present administration is a study in euphemism, rationalization, and justification. Every failure or setback is “unexpected,” any modest success is “profound” and “important.”
Despite this corporatism and institutional arrogance, NPR produces some good work. Its overall tone is generally earnest rather than partisan. And it puts on some damn good shows — including its weekend programming staples Car Talk and the documentary series This American Life. When you’ve listened to one of these — or a set of Ella Fitzgerald’s best work — it’s easy to rationalize an earnest, middlebrow radio network as, well, maybe not the worst waste of $40 or $50 million in taxpayer money.
Perhaps most important to establishment Republicans, the government subsidies give them influence with NPR. And its earnest, middlebrow listeners. As long as the network relies on government funds, it has to be “fair” to both establishment political parties. And, in this context, “fair” means perpetuating topics and coverage that serves the interests of the establishment parties.
So, why the difference this year? Why the executive resignations instead of another statist tango? Was the difference James O’Keefe? Or forces beyond his media trickery?
Probably the latter.
An NPR employee in a position to know told me that the organization elite worries that establishment Republicans aren’t interested in the tango this time around. Influenced by Tea Party activists, particularly in the House of Representatives, the GOP may actually cut NPR’s allowance significantly, if not completely. That’s why Ron Schiller’s boast about not needing government money and obsequious remarks about ignorant Tea Partiers were such a double-whammy. And why NPR’s Board wanted more than just the head of a middle-level executive who was already halfway out the door.
NPR’s institutional elite may still be as earnest and dedicated as the network itself; but it breeds monsters.
NPR fired Vivian Schiller to show true believers in the Congress that it’s still willing to dance the statist tango. Now, it waits to see if they’re impressed. We’ll find out this summer, when Speaker Boehner assembles his first budget.
One last point to consider, with regard to arrogance of institutions like NPR.
Here in the States, public radio is like your uncle, the charming communist who teaches sociology at the local community college. Earnest. Dedicated. Credentialed. Green. Reform-minded. Smart in a million minor ways. So, why do many of its employees make bone-headed decisions in the things they say and do?
Ron Schiller isn’t the only one who’s done something stupid. Last year, it came out that the publicity director for one of NPR’s larger member stations had posted to the left-wing Internet user group JournoList that she would “Laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” if right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh were dying in front of her.
The publicity director, a woman with the Dickensian name Sarah Spitz, later issued a watery apology:
“I made poorly considered remarks about Rush Limbaugh to what I believed was a private email discussion group from my personal email account. …I apologize to anyone I may have offended and I regret these comments greatly; they do not reflect the values by which I conduct my life.”
That common weasel phrase “may have offended,” so fatal to the spirit of apology.
NPR took great pains to distance itself from Ms. Spitz. It emphasized that she had never been an employee of the network — although it had run a few pieces she’d submitted from her occasional on-air work at the local station where she was an employee.
The term “cognitive dissonance” applies here. Some small minds don’t like the confusion caused by holding conflicting or inconsistent ideas, so they flee to orthodoxy. Structure and agreement. Arrogant institutions offer these things; but decadent institutions (which can also be arrogant) aren’t able to manage their orthodoxy and structure. Counter-intuitively, they become more orthodox because they are institutionally decadent. So it is with NPR. Its institutional elite may still be as earnest and dedicated as the network itself; but it breeds monsters. Small minds that seek agreement instead of wisdom, tormented by insecurities that they barely perceive.
They can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with the institution’s orthodoxy. Just as they can’t imagine anyone voting for McCain. Or Barr. Or anyone other than the overwhelmed mediocrity now occupying the White House. This lack of imagination becomes a kind of mental defect; and the people become fruit ripe for plucking by someone like James O’Keefe.
I’d turn back to O’Keefe and tell him that such ripe fruit is also low fruit. But who am I to get between a man and his livelihood?
As for NPR, if it loses its government subsidies, the good programs it produces will find value in the open market. And value eventually finds a home.
Jim Walsh owns Silver Lake Publishing, which has recently published Seven Principles of Good Government — Gary Johnson’s 2012 presidential campaign book.
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