In Defense of NPR
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Come on now: let's take a breath and put this National Public Radio (NPR) fracas into perspective.
Just as public radio struggles against yet another assault from its longtime nemesis - the right-wing machine that would thrill if our sole sources of information were Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and ads paid for by the Koch Brothers - it walks into a trap perpetrated by one of the sleaziest operatives ever to climb out of a sewer.
First, in the interest of full disclosure: While not presently committing journalism on public television, the two of us have been colleagues on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) for almost 40 years (although never for NPR). We've lived through every one of the fierce and often unscrupulous efforts by the right to shut down both public television and radio. Our work has sometimes been the explicit bull's eye on the dartboard as conservative ideologues sought to extinguish the independent reporting and analysis they find so threatening to their phobic worldview.
We have come to believe, as so many others have, that only the creation of a substantial trust fund for public media will free it from the whims and biases of the politicians, including Democratic politicians (yes, after one of our documentaries tracking President Clinton's scandalous fundraising in the mid-1990's, the knives were sharpened on the other side of the aisle).
Richard Nixon was the first to try to shut down public broadcasting, strangling and diverting funding, attacking alleged bias and even placing public broadcasters Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil on his legendary enemies list. Nixon didn't succeed, and, ironically, his downfall was brought about in part by public television's nighttime rebroadcasts of the Senate Watergate hearings, exposing his crimes and misdemeanors to a wider, primetime audience.
Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich tried to gut public broadcasting, too, and the George W. Bush White House planted partisan operatives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in an attempt to challenge journalists who didn't hew to the party line.
But what's happening now is the worst yet. Just as Republicans again clamor for the elimination of government funding and public broadcasting once more fights for life, it steps on its own oxygen line. The details are well-known: how NPR's development chief Ron Schiller stupidly fell into a sting perpetrated by an organization run by the young conservative hit man James O'Keefe, a product of that grimy underworld of ideologically based harassment which feeds the right's slime machine. Posing as members of a phony Muslim group, O'Keefe's agents provocateur offered NPR a check for $5 million - an offer that was rejected.
But Schiller couldn't leave it there. Unaware that he was speaking into a hidden camera and microphone, and violating everything we're told from childhood about not talking to strangers, he allowed the two co-conspirators to goad him into a loquacious display of personal opinions, including his belief that Tea Partiers are racist and cult-like. As the record shows, more than once, he said he had taken off his "NPR hat" and was representing himself as no one other than who he is. His convictions, their expression so grossly ill-advised in this instance, are his own.
Schiller is a fundraiser, not a news director. NPR keeps a high, thick firewall between its successful development office and its superb news division. The "separation of church and state" - the classic division of editorial and finance - has been one of the glories of public radio as it has won a large and respectful audience as the place on the radio spectrum that is free of commercials and commercial values.