New Scandal: Approach With Caution (UPDATED)

NPR, Schiller, O’Keefe, and the benefits of a breather

NPR took another hit today with the release of a video from James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas showing NPR Foundation senior vice president Ron Schiller at a lunch in February describing the Tea Party as “scary” and “xenophobic” and claiming that the network would be better off without government funding. (Schiller has since left NPR.) The last point directly contradicts statements made by network head Vivian Schiller just yesterday.

The Daily Caller’s Matthew Boyle describes O’Keefe’s latest sting in his report:

Schiller and Betsy Liley, NPR’s director of institutional giving, are seen meeting with two men who, unbeknownst to the NPR executives, are posing as members of a Muslim Brotherhood front group. The men, who identified themselves as Ibrahim Kasaam and Amir Malik from the fictitious Muslim Education Action Center (MEAC) Trust, met with Schiller and Liley at Café Milano, a well-known Georgetown restaurant, and explained their desire to give to $5 million to NPR because, “the Zionist coverage is quite substantial elsewhere.”

On the tapes, Schiller wastes little time before attacking conservatives. The Republican Party, Schiller says, has been “hijacked by this group.” The man posing as Malik finishes the sentence by adding, “the radical, racist, Islamaphobic, Tea Party people.” Schiller agrees and intensifies the criticism, saying that the Tea Party people aren’t “just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

And here’s the video:

Aside from disparaging the Tea Party (“seriously racist, racist people”), Schiller claimed that liberals were more intelligent than conservatives—though he took his NPR hat off before doing so—and praised NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams (a decision which no doubt put the network in O’Keefe’s firing line).

“What NPR did I’m very proud of. What NPR stood for is a non-racist, non-bigoted, straightforward telling of the news. Our feeling is that if a person expresses his or her personal opinion, which anyone is entitled to do in a free society, they are compromised as a journalist. They can no longer fairly report. And the question we asked internally was, can Juan Williams, when he makes a statement like that, can he report to the Muslim population, and be believed, for example? And the answer is no. He lost all credibility and that breaks your ethics as a journalist.”

Schiller also contradicted statements made by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) just yesterday about the importance of federal funding to the network. The non-CEO Schiller was recorded saying that NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.”

Still bruised from the Juan Williams firing, NPR is being pushed into the ring once again for a gloves-off right-wing battering. And already, the network is arms up in damage control, with senior VP of marketing Dana Davis Rehm releasing this statement:

“The fraudulent organization represented in this video repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept.

“We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for.

“Mr. Schiller announced last week that he is leaving NPR for another job.”

A couple of things on this.

Obviously, NPR has to be rapid in its response here—“Look, we’re just as quick to condemn liberal Schiller as we were to give Williams the boot.” It’s a natural, understandable, and—on the surface evidence we have—pretty justifiable corporate response. But the rest of us should probably take a breather before jumping to any conclusions about the magnitude or repercussions or deeper meaning of this morning’s news. Where NPR has learned to be quick, we have hopefully learned to slow down.

From where might we have learned such a lesson? From video scandals past. Think ACORN and think Shirley Sherrod: job- and organization-crippling scandals in which the media blindly aided and abetted. Note too that O’Keefe is a political point-scorer, and here he is scoring from a soft-target. It was shrewd to approach a fundraiser—someone whose arm is easily bent into agreement (and here, stupidity) with the mention of money—for the project. But it would have been braver, and perhaps more damning, to entrap a journalist (if you’re going to entrap at all).

Either way, it will be interesting to watch the fallout from today’s video release. And it will be interesting to see who waits for the full fallout before stepping into the ring to throw their punches.

UPDATE: David Folkenflik has just tweeted that the board for NPR News has ousted CEO Vivian Schiller in the wake of the scandal. Poynter has a statement from the board of directors on Schiller’s resignation. Joyce Slocum, SVP of Legal Affairs and General Counsel, will be interim CEO.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,