Can NPR Be Saved? Once Again, Board Caves to Critics

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday March 09, 2011 - 10:27:00 AM

This morning the news on NPR, which at our house is turned on right after the alarm goes off, was vigorous backpedaling on the part of management. This followed an earlier story of how a bigtime fundraising guy for the organization had been trapped in a sting by far right activists, and had admitted to the faux donors sent to ensnare him that he was contemptuous of the tea baggers and wished NPR didn’t have to depend on federal funding. The shills even caught the exchange on video, it seems.

For a change, let’s just quote Fox News:

“Embattled NPR CEO Vivian Schiller resigned Wednesday after a hidden-camera video was released showing a fellow executive criticizing Republicans as ‘anti-intellectual’ and calling the Tea Party ‘racist.’ “

Well, whoop-de-do! The guy seems to have said that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes—and heads have rolled because of it. 

This just in: Republicans ARE anti-intellectual, and that’s a mild way of putting it. Shtoopid, is what he should have said. And here I quote the late father of a friend, who is reported to have said “the Shtoopids, they’re everywhere!” They’re certainly in the Republican Party and especially in its Tea Party wing. And two NPR execs have now been forced out because one of them mentioned it?  

Not only that, many Tea Baggers are indeed racists. Everybody Holler Surprise! 

NPR’s national news operation is supported mainly by outside contributions, not by federal funds, but a recent congressional threat to cut funding for public broadcasting would have considerable impact on many local station who rely on this source for the majority of their revenue. And NPR’s national board is dominated by representatives of local stations, which might explain its kneejerk reaction in what most sources call dumping Vivian Schiller. Evidently her mistake was hiring the fundraiser (also confusingly named Schiller, though he’s no relation to Vivian) who was a bit too candid with the sting people. 

What’s problematic in this story is that many high up at NPR, liberals though they might be, are also lily-livered cowards. (Some in Berkeley might call that an oxymoronic statement, but not me.) The tenor of this discussion is all too reminiscent of the bad old days of Senator McCarthy (from Wisconsin!) and the House Un-American Activities committee. Just suggest that someone has heterodox leanings, and out the door with him or her. 

The whole hidden camera thing is disgusting. If it were journalism, which it’s not, it would be considered unethical by many, especially because producers have been caught doctoring their products in order to deceive the viewer. I’m even a bit uncomfortable with Michael Moore’s well-known technique of ambushing his subjects, even though he usually discloses his identity, but I laugh along with everyone else in the theater. 

In California, what the stingers did would be illegal. Here, one party to a conversation where there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy may not record without the consent of the other party—it’s a felony, and also exposes the recording party to a civil lawsuit. 

(I learned this myself the hard way as a novice reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian when I surreptitiously taped a salesman’s bait-and-switch pitch and told the story in the paper. The next day we got an outraged call from the Guardian’s legal advisor: “Not only did you commit a felony, you boasted about it in print!” Fortunately the statute of limitations ran before I was prosecuted. That was pre-lawschool…now I know better.) 

It’s a shame that the NPR board saw fit to cave in to Tea Party pressure—and so fast. A certain sensitivity already existed there because of the brouhaha over firing Juan Williams. I’ve always thought the guy’s a jerk, but even jerks deserve more due process than he got for confessing on Fox News that he’s afraid of people in funny clothes on planes. But firing (can’t remember the euphemism they used) the woman who fired Williams only compounded the error. 

Would it be possible for whoever’s still standing at NPR to sit down, take a deep breath, and establish some clear and fair policies here? It’s not usual in most workplaces for employees to be let go because of what they say when they’re off duty, and it’s even more unusual for their supervisors to be axed into the bargain. And when the undesirable opinions have been uttered in what was supposed to be a private conversation….come on! It’s just not fair to blame the entrapped victim if the offending words are later publicized by unscrupulous parties. 

One could certainly argue, and some have, that judgment is important in a fundraising executive. If Mr. Schiller didn’t know that it was foolish to spill his brains to his potential marks, even if he thought he was sucking up to people who agreed with him and would give more because they did, perhaps he should be replaced—but discretely, not with all this hoopla. And NPR (whoever’s in charge) didn’t even take the bait—they turned down the proferred $5 million, which came with strings attached. 

This is very serious business, because increasing numbers of people get most of their news from radio. Among those I know, most get their basic information about how the world is turning from NPR news broadcasts, not from print papers either local or national, and not from television. (A diehard minority listens to Pacifica outlets, especially KPFA, but those stations have their own problems too complex to discuss today.) 

Is there anything listeners can do to help NPR grow some backbone? A good percentage of NPR reporters understand what’s up—several of them are old colleagues of mine from previous lives who recognize the appropriate standards in these situations. But the working journalists don’t have much clout there, and they don’t have much that’s complimentary to say about their management. 

One contaminating factor is the way non-profit “public” media are increasingly reliant on big corporate advertisers, known as “underwriters” in the trade. If Archer Daniels Midlands is buttering your bread with its corn oil margarine, it’s harder to report objectively on the environmental risks of corn-derived biofuels.  

If local individuals gave more financial support to local news stations, perhaps they wouldn’t have to rely so much on either the federal government or corporate sponsors. And it’s possible to figure out which local stations are supported predominantly by listeners instead of by corporations. Strengthening local NPR outlets (and KPFA too) is the news consumer’s best antidote to NPR’s weak-kneed national management at the moment.