03.09.11

NPR's Polarizing Shakeup

NPR's federal funding is at risk and CEO Vivian Schiller is out after conservative activist James O'Keefe caught an NPR executive on camera railing against the Tea Party—but O'Keefe tells Howard Kurtz he's not pursuing a right-wing agenda.

On Monday, Vivian Schiller took the podium at the National Press Club to passionately defend the mission of National Public Radio, even as she acknowledged her own management mistakes.

By Wednesday morning, she had been forced out, courtesy of James O’Keefe, the man who famously dressed up as a pimp in an undercover sting against ACORN. The conservative activist had faded from the news, nine months after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for entering Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office under false pretenses.

Most of the coverage has ignored the deception involved in O’Keefe’s latest scheme, a hidden-camera video that captured a top NPR executive making incendiary remarks about the Tea Party. But the impact is beyond dispute: O’Keefe damaged NPR’s chances to hang on to its federal funding and cut short the tenure of Schiller, a former New York Times executive who took the helm at the radio network less than two and a half years ago.

O’Keefe said in an interview that he is a “citizen journalist” and “the institutions I’ve gone after are the institutions that investigative reporters have refused to investigate.” He is not pursuing a right-wing agenda, he said, but has “a deep-seated passion for compensating for where the establishment press refuses to go.”

Asked about the lies necessary to pull off these stings, O’Keefe said he views it “as a sort of guerrilla theater… I go after public officials on the job. I feel it’s moral, ethical, and necessary.” He added that networks such as ABC, which in the 1990s had staffers take jobs as Food Lion clerks to investigate conditions at the supermarket chain, have used the same techniques.

Since NPR executives dropped Williams for his remarks about Muslims, O’Keefe said, “I’m merely putting their beliefs to the test.”

In the new video, NPR Senior Vice President Ron Schiller trashed Tea Partiers as “Islamophobic,” “xenophobic,” and “seriously racist” folks who speak for “gun-toting” America. He thought he was talking to two wealthy Muslims who were potential NPR donors.

“I may have aesthetic qualms about it, but the point of journalism is the story,” said Tucker Carlson, whose Daily Caller site was the first to post the O’Keefe video. “The main question you ask is, is it true?” Carlson said Ron Schiller, who is no relation to NPR’s chief executive, “lived down to every single stereotype of public broadcasting: sneering, closed-minded, arrogant, contemptuous of the rest of the country, convinced anyone who disagrees is evil and stupid.”

Former Salon editor Joan Walsh accused NPR of “running scared” by dumping Vivian Schiller after the O’Keefe sting. “It’s mind-blowing that she would be forced out so quickly based on the work of a known scam artist,” she said.

John Aravosis, founder of the liberal Americablog, called O’Keefe “the new Jerry Springer version of a journalist, doing something that’s really kind of scummy.”

Vivian Schiller’s standing at NPR was already shaky when O’Keefe’s video went viral. She acknowledged at the Press Club that she “made some mistakes” in the firing of Juan Williams, the NPR analyst whose dismissal last fall became a cause célèbre on the right. He was abruptly canned over the phone for having said on Fox News that he gets nervous on airplanes when he sees people in Muslim garb.

In the uproar that followed, NPR’s board denied Schiller her annual bonus and accepted the resignation of the organization’s top news executive, Ellen Weiss.

The Williams firing, in fact, provided the inspiration for O’Keefe’s scheme to set up a fake website for a Muslim organization. Since NPR executives dropped Williams for his remarks about Muslims, O’Keefe said, “I’m merely putting their beliefs to the test.”

Asked about other controversial episodes in his past, O’Keefe acknowledged that he heavily edited the ACORN videos, in which staffers were seen offering advice to a woman they thought was a teenage prostitute, but said he posted the complete audio online. “All journalism is edited,” said O’Keefe, who said he shot himself in the pimp costume as “an entertaining trailer.” “You’re not going to print the transcript of your conversation with me.” ACORN disbanded after Congress cut off its funding.

He said he had no intention of tampering with Landrieu’s phone system and was just hoping the Louisiana senator would say embarrassing things about shutting off calls from critics. Had that happened, “I would have been hailed as a hero,” he said. He was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $1,500 after his guilty plea.

Correspondent Abbie Boudreau reported on CNN last fall that an associate of O’Keefe’s had warned her that the provocateur planned to lure her to a boat strewn with dildos and pornography, where he would attempt to seduce her as a hidden camera rolled. O’Keefe said that was just a suggestion in a “brainstorming document” and that all he was going to do was talk to her “flirtatiously.”

Whatever the debate over O’Keefe’s methods, the fallout for NPR won’t end with Vivian Schiller’s departure. The radio network has enjoyed remarkable success over the last decade, when its audience roughly doubled, to 34 million. But with the Republican takeover of the House, its federal funding, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of its budget, is in jeopardy.

The House has already zeroed out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which subsidizes both NPR and PBS. Now Ron Schiller has handed NPR’s detractors a sword by saying on the video, “It is very clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding.” That could increase pressure on the Democratic-controlled Senate to eliminate or reduce the funding at a time of soaring deficits. (Ron Schiller had already planned to join the Aspen Institute but backed out of the job on Wednesday. NPR and Vivian Schiller did not respond to requests for comment.)

In her Monday speech, Schiller said such a move would particularly hurt rural stations that rely on government checks for 30 to 50 percent of their budgets.

Despite the conservative conviction that NPR is biased, liberals don’t necessarily revere the network. “A lot of people on the left aren’t really in the mood to defend NPR,” Aravosis said. “They feel NPR hasn’t been very liberal and hasn’t done a good job of defending itself.”

Carlson, who once hosted a PBS show, was a bit more supportive. While he calls taxpayer funding of public broadcasting “obnoxious,” Carlson added: “I listen to NPR. I think there’s a lot at NPR that’s good. I give NPR money.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.