Tuned In

NPR Exec Pranked, Calls Tea Party "Racist"

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You may recall conservative video hoaxster James O’Keefe from such films as the undercover ACORN videos that solicited employees of the group for aid in a prostitution business. O’Keefe’s outfit has embarrassed another target today, at a politically pointedly chosen time. In the video (edited version above, full two-hour version available here), a former NPR fundraising executive takes a meeting with representatives of a fictitious Muslim advocacy group, and—among other potentially troublesome statements as Congress debates public-broadcasting funding—slams the Tea Party as a “xenophobic” and “racist” group.

Maybe even more damaging to NPR: in the midst of the funding controversy, he tells the potential “donors” that NPR would survive without public funding (though, to be fair, he says that some stations “would go dark”).

The executive, Ron Schiller (who recently left NPR in an apparently unrelated job move) met in February, along with NPR institutional giving director Betsy Liley, with two men purporting to be representing the Muslim Action Education Center, a fictitious organization (with a falsified web page as backup). In the course of the conversation, caught on hidden camera, the men, who claimed ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, offered a $5 million donation (which the NPR executives did not accept), and turned the conversation to the Tea Party,  NPR’s coverage of Israel and Muslims, the public-radio funding threat and Juan Williams.

Among the most egregious of Schiller’s remarks: That the Tea Party has hijacked the GOP, and its members are “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.” That “there is a significant anti-intellectual move on the part of a significant part of the Republican Party. … In my personal opinion, liberals today might be more educated, fair and balanced than conservatives.” That some Jewish organizations are not interested in balanced coverage of Israel. and that NPR would be “better off in the long run without federal funding.”

NPR issued a statement decrying Schiller’s remarks this morning. But how damning is the video? It shows that Schiller has outspoken opinions, which he stressed were his own and not NPR’s. Whether that shows NPR’s news to be biased depends on whether you believe that anyone with political opinions—that is, everyone—would use them to slant straight news coverage given the chance. (Presumably anyone who would believe that here—noting that Schiller was a fundraiser, not an editor—would believe the same of Roger Ailes and Fox News.)

And some of the “embarrassing” comments are in the eye of the beholder. Schiller, for instance, says that to leave Muslim voices out of the news would be like leaving women’s voices out of the news. But would anyone, liberal or conservative, make a credible argument otherwise, for leaving any group’s perspective out of news coverage? (The prank—which uses “Muslim Brotherhood” more often in screen titles than in the actual conversation—seems premised on the idea that meeting with a Muslim group and being in favor of including Muslim perspectives is inherently wrong.)

What may matter most here, though, given the political season and the funding vote, is perception—and whether Schiller still works at NPR are not, there is no way the perception is good here. On the edited video at least, Schiller’s insulting remarks about conservatives and Tea Party members read like a satirical script of a condescending, smug, insular liberal (and it’s hard to imagine  a context, other than deliberate parody, where they’d sound much better). The liberalism charge gets made against NPR and PBS often, but it’s most politically damaging when coupled with elitism. Put bluntly, public broadcasting is in the position of asking people for money. Best not to send the message that you can’t stand a lot of them.

And his comments about NPR’s ability to withstand the loss of funding? They go against the NPR official line, but they have the benefit of probably being true. Zeroing out federal funding wouldn’t kill NPR per se—it has considerable endowments and he rightly noted that most of its funding is private. But its sudden loss would badly hurt local stations in small markets—far from the East Coast and Washington, where Schiller went to have lunch and ended up dining on his foot.