NPR Flubs Response to Schiller Controversy

Another "scandal," another rash reaction

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller has resigned following the controversial release of a video showing an NPR fundraiser describing the Tea Party as racist and saying that the network would be better off without federal funding. Just Monday, Schiller had spoken publicly about the importance of federal funding to NPR.

The video, as you by now probably know, was the work of conservative videographer James O’Keefe from Project Veritas. O’Keefe’s latest Punk’d-like sting was to invite NPR Foundation Senior VP Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian) and colleague Betsy Liley to lunch in Georgetown with two men, posing as members of a front group for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were ready to hand over $5 million to the public broadcaster. With a hidden camera watching on, the two fake (potential) funders goaded Ron Schiller into making a whole number of foolish statements (at least from a “things you can and can’t say in public” perspective): Tea Partiers were “seriously racist, racist people,” Juan Williams’s firing was a move of which NPR should be proud, liberals were more intellectual than conservatives, and NPR would be better off without federal funding.

Ron Schiller, who had already taken a job with the Aspen Institute and was to leave NPR in May, resigned officially Tuesday night. Vivian Schiller’s resignation was announced Wednesday morning. After some initial confusion about whether she had resigned voluntarily or was “ousted”—as NPR media reporter David Folkenflik had reported in a tweet—NPR Board Chairman David Edwards said in a press conference Wednesday morning that Schiller “offered to step aside if that was the board’s will…and the board ultimately decided that was in the best interest of the organization.” An NPR spokesperson I contacted would not comment further on the specifics of the resignation but the presser in which it is discussed is here.

On the surface, it’s easy to see why Schiller was scapegoated. The stunning bungling of the Juan Williams controversy last year—and Williams’ subsequent crowing from his new full-time perch at Fox News—damaged NPR’s reputation as a balanced, fair, and non-partisan news outlet (whether that reputation was a fair assessment to begin with or not) and stirred a loud and angry move from the right to defund the broadcaster. By lopping off its own head today, NPR is essentially saying, “Look how fair we are” in an effort to preempt right wing attacks and further calls for government defunding.

But the network’s overreaction to this manufactured semi-scandal might end up doing it more harm than good. Ron Schiller was not a journalist, or a program executive, or someone who had anything at all to do with NPR’s editorial operations. He was a professional glad-hander tasked with wining and dining and nodding in agreement with rich people so that they would give him money. And Schiller was good at his job by all accounts—his team racked up $2.5 billion over four years in his time at the University of Chicago. Fundraisers generally have minimal influence over the editorial side,* and the uproar over Schiller’s comments smacks of willful ignorance of how fundraising works on the part of people who know exactly how fundraising works.

It’s also a willful ignorance of how basic human interactions work. Most folks, when stuck in a conversational setting with strangers—particularly powerful, check-dangling strangers with strong opinions—will choose the path of least conversational resistance. They’ll smile, and agree, and try to mirror their interlocutor’s feelings—in part because it is awkward to do otherwise, in part because doing otherwise might imperil their chances at bringing home a five million dollar check. If you’ve spent time as a human being, or even as a journalist, you know this. This is why the Buffalo Beast’s gotcha tape of Scott Walker didn’t really “prove” much else aside from the fact that Walker will be polite and agreeable when talking to a very rich and opinionated man who might one day stuff his pockets or contribute to future campaigns. And this is why, even though Ron Schiller said a bunch of stupid things about Tea Partiers and veered from the NPR line on government funding, his lunchtime comments don’t serve to invalidate the entire organization. There is no reason for intelligent people—at NPR and writing about them—to pretend otherwise, or to claim the kinds of things we say in transactional, often awkward social settings should be used as proof positive of institutional malevolence. Unless, of course, the goal is to gin up politically motivated outrage for a cause like defunding a public broadcaster.

It’s to NPR’s discredit that they took O’Keefe’s bait. Even the least cynical of scandal-watchers would struggle to believe that the NPR board is surprised by the sentiments Ron Schiller expressed. It’s not as if he came out in favor of infanticide, or expressed a lifelong admiration of Pol Pot. He offered the same lazy liberal nostrums common at Washington cocktail parties and presumably very familiar to NPR staffers at all levels. No, NPR was shocked only by the fact that these sentiments have been recorded for posterity and might negatively affect the way people think about the network.

But most people—and certainly those who’d care—already think NPR is liberal, and this ad hoc attempt to convince them otherwise will not convince them otherwise. Parting ways with Vivian Schiller is a dramatic face-saving exercise that has no chance of working. The congressmen who hate NPR and want it defunded into oblivion aren’t going to stop hating it. And NPR’s supporters are going to be merely more embarrassed about having to support an organization that seems all too ready to put its own neck in the guillotine whenever politically sensitive controversy sparks.

Whatever you might think of its individual employees, NPR is a legitimate, independent news organization that is consistently strong and tough in its reporting. Wouldn’t it have been better for them to embody those virtues in responding to O’Keefe’s latest piece of entrapment? Instead of “ousting” Vivian Schiller, they might have stood up for themselves and released a statement closer to the following: “Ron Schiller was a fundraiser who no longer works for us. He had nothing to do with our editorial decision making process. And, frankly, our editorial integrity speaks for itself. We’ve got reporters stationed all over the world, we’ve won all sorts of prizes, we’ve got an ombudsman who is committed to examining our editorial operations. If you think our reporting is tainted, or unreliable, that’s your opinion, and you’re free to express it. And to look for the evidence. But we will not be intimidated by the elaborate undercover hackwork of vindictive political point-scorers who are determined to see NPR fail.”

Poynter’s Steve Myers reports that when asked Wednesday morning if NPR was bowing to conservatives, Edwards responded that the broadcaster was not weakened by this move. But Edwards is wrong. Not only does this overreaction weaken NPR, it exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak—too concerned about its image to realize that “surrender” is not always the best option.

We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes at NPR. Perhaps there was other discontentment with Schiller that led to her firing. Or perhaps the board is truly terrified of losing any funding from the government or elsewhere. But today’s decision has not helped NPR’s cause. That it has now twice demonstrated a propensity to overreact and cower suggests NPR is neither firmly right nor left nor firmly in the middle, but blowing with whichever breeze may come. And that makes it an easy target for the heavy winds currently sweeping in from the right.

*Note: this originally read “fundraisers generally have zero interaction with the editorial side,” which is obviously not completely true upon a little reflection.

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