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NPR Scandal: The Real Story, Please

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By Russ Baker 

You’ve undoubtedly heard about the turmoil at National Public Radio, where first a top fundraiser and then the chief executive have resigned, clearly under pressure. The issue: “inappropriate” comments made to bogus potential donors, purportedly Muslims but actually agents in a right wing activist sting with hidden cameras.

As reported by the New York Times:

In the midst of a brutal battle with Republican critics in Congress over federal subsidies, NPR has lost its chief executive after yet another politically charged embarrassment.

Vivian Schiller, who joined NPR two years ago, offered her resignation to the public radio organization’s board late Tuesday, half a day after a conservative filmmaker released a video that showed one of NPR’s fund-raising executives disparaging Republicans and Tea Party supporters in a conversation with people posing as prospective donors….

What did the NPR fundraisers actually say? We only know from these edited excerpts. Few people probably will watch even these, which were cherry-picked to make NPR look bad.  Still fewer are likely to view the complete unedited footage, which James O’Keefe – the Right’s video hit man—has not offered, and which the board of NPR apparently has not demanded.

The result is that they—and we—are judging in the dark.   We have no idea regarding the context of the statements in question, and the extent to which the NPR officials were baited or entrapped.  We also have no idea regarding other statements they might have made that would make them look better.

According to the edited footage, the NPR executives did make critical comments about Republicans and Tea Party supporters. But some things to keep in mind:

We do not hear the lead-up from the agents in the sting, so we don’t know exactly why the NPR executives are talking about these subjects, or what exactly they were responding to. Just a guess: the Muslim-donor impersonators may have baited them with a question about why NPR is under attack from these interests, and why minority groups such as theirs should support an outlet that offends those critics.

By the way, how outrageous is it to suggest that the Tea Party includes elements with a dim view of people of races different from their own?   Is not the obsession with President Obama’s nationality itself a clue?   That’s not to say all Tea Party supporters hold such views.  But a fair number?  For a news organization the test should be empirical, and not political correctness (which is an odd standard for the Right now to be asserting.)  The question is not whether NPR executives said something, but whether what they said is grounded in truth.

In fact, when I watch some pro-Israel demonstrations, I sometimes see participants expressing intolerant if not racist views. The question for a journalist would be: how much of a movement is motivated by such views? If it seems to loom large, it should be reported—and commented upon.

It’s also a good bet that the NPR executives were being invited, tacitly or explicitly, to say why Muslims should consider the network to be fair minded.  That’s likely why you see them in the footage nodding and remarking sympathetically. But you will also notice that they explain as well that some Jewish groups like their coverage while others do not.  In that context they state clearly their intention to be fair to all.

The released excerpts actually are pretty mild, especially considering that they presumably are the most embarrassing extracts that Mr. O’Keefe could offer from a long lunch. The NPR fundraisers are on a sales call. Naturally their inclination is to be polite. More so because NPR could be on the verge of losing all of its federal funding. If that happens, hustling for dollars is the only alternative. The enemies of NPR know this, but don’t emphasize the very real bind the network is in.

There will continue to be revelations, and we can expect them to reflect negatively on the radio network. For example, a new story just emerging involves a taped follow-up telephone call after the lunch. In it, NPR’s senior director of institutional giving is asked if she can arrange for this potential donation to be treated as anonymous, and says that she believes this to be possible. The O’Keefe pretend-Muslim operative says that they want to be shielded from a government audit. That might sound sinister, but a lot of donors, for various reasons, prefer to be anonymous, and to avoid incurring audits.  (At least with this audio-taped conversation, unlike the “hot” video, we get to hear the whole thing—and if we bother to listen all the way through, we encounter an NPR executive who sounds pretty cautious and responsible.)

The ultimate failure here, though, is on the part of NPR, yet not in the way its critics charge.  The failure has been to do the first and most basic thing a news organization is supposed to do— get the story and get it out. The NPR board should have insisted on seeing the entire unedited tape of the lunch meeting.  It should also find out who, ultimately, is behind this hit job and what purposes it serves. You can bet that the answer has something to do with entrenched interests who do not like any kind of non-Fox reporting, even of the tepid sort that increasingly defines an embattled and defensive NPR.

If the facts do show real improprieties by its executives, fine: show them the door.  But at least then their removal would be based on what actually occurred. Not on an edited and tendentious version of that event, nor on the irrational mob reaction to the headlines.  Plus, we listeners would know the whole story too.  And isn’t that why NPR is supposed to exist: to explain things, nuances and all?

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