NPR Scandal Puts Federal Funding in Doubt

April 25, 2011 04:02

The bottom line is that NPR should be freed from taxpayer oversight for the sake of all concerned. They don’t need it, the taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for it, and the government has no business being in the news business.

By Roger Aronoff

It has been a rough year for National Public Radio (NPR) and it appears to be getting worse. That is, unless, the outcome they are dreading turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. If they lose their federal funding, they will then be free to operate as a business, non-profit or otherwise, without having to answer to Congress.

The latest scandal erupted in early March when self-described citizen journalist James O’Keefe made another of his now famous “sting” videos, which captured some top executives at NPR expressing views that obviously were not meant for public consumption. O’Keefe is famous for the undercover video sting of ACORN, the community activist organization associated with President Obama, which has had many legal problems including voter registration fraud and embezzlement by its top people. The result was that ACORN was defunded by Congress, a fate which may await NPR as well.

Last October was the Juan Williams scandal, in which Williams, who had been with NPR for 10 years, was fired after saying on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” that “…when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

NPR said that he was fired over a pattern of commentaries that violated their guidelines. According to the Washington Post, “The rules ban NPR analysts from making speculative statements or rendering opinions on TV that would be deemed unacceptable if uttered on an NPR program. The policy has some gray areas, they acknowledged, but it generally prohibits personal attacks or statements that negatively characterize broad groups of people, such as Muslims.”

At that time, Ellen Weiss, then senior vice president for news, was let go for her handling of the situation. It was pointed out at the time that in the past, other, more egregious comments by NPR analysts speaking on other non-NPR shows, did not cost them their jobs. One was Julianne Malveaux, who said of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that “I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early like many black men do, of heart disease. Well, that’s how I feel. He is an absolutely reprehensible person.” Nina Totenberg said of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina that “If there is retributive justice, he’ll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will get it.” Apparently neither of those comments were “deemed unacceptable.”

Into the arena stepped James O’Keefe, in an atmosphere in which the newly elected Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with 87 brand new Republican members, was looking for places to cut President Obama’s budget of $3.7 trillion, with a deficit of more than $1.5 trillion.

O’Keefe set up his camera at the chic Georgetown eatery, Café Milano. He had gone to great lengths, including setting up a website for a fictitious organization called the “Muslim Education Action Center Trust,” or MEAC. Two associates of O’Keefe, calling themselves Ibrahim Kasaam and Amir Malik, disguised themselves and pretended to be part of MEAC, an “organization [that] was originally founded by a few members of the Muslim Brotherhood in America,” and which “contributes to Muslim schools throughout the United States.” They arranged to have Ronald Schiller, head of National Public Radio’s nonprofit foundation, and Betsy Liley, the network director of institutional giving, come to the lunch. The bait was the possibility of a $5 million donation to NPR. The “sting” was first reported by “The Daily Caller,” the website created by Tucker Carlson and his partners.

There were three main issues mentioned by Ron Schiller and Liley that got them in hot water, and resulted in Schiller’s resignation, followed closely by the firing of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation). One of them concerned the Republican Party, the Tea Party and conservatives. Ron Schiller said that the Republican Party has been “hijacked by this group,” referring to the Tea Party. “The current Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party, is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian—I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move…,” said Schiller. ‘Malik’ jumped in, adding “the radical, racist, Islamophobic Tea Party people.” Schiller agreed, saying that the Tea Party is “…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.”

The second issue, ignored by most of the press, concerned the stereotypical comments made about Jewish control of the media.

Schiller appears to agree with the two men when “Kasaam” says that “Jews do kind of control the media, or, I mean, certainly the Zionists and the people who have the interests in swaying media coverage toward a favorable direction of Israel.” Schiller and Liley laugh when the men said NPR was often referred to as “National Palestinian Radio.” Liley then said, “Oh, is that right. That’s good. I like that.”

The two actors said that they wouldn’t be “too upset about maybe a little bit less Jew influence of money into NPR.” Schiller then said that there isn’t a lot of “Zionist or pro-Israel” influence at NPR. He said “it’s there in those who own newspapers, obviously, but no one owns NPR.”

These comments came as no surprise to the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), whose highly respected analyses of Middle East media coverage include many examples of slanted NPR coverage that is clearly hostile toward Israel. However, it was still surprising to hear the views of NPR spokesmen caught off-guard, doing business with what they believed to be representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The third issue that caused a storm was when Schiller was caught by O’Keefe’s camera saying, “Well frankly, it is clear that we [NPR] would be better off in the long-run without federal funding.” He added that “The challenge right now is that if we lost it altogether we would have a lot of stations go dark.” By saying that, Schiller, NPR’s top fundraiser, provided a powerful sound bite that was used extensively in the debate in the House on March 17th leading up to a vote of 229 – 193 in favor of cutting off federal funds for local NPR affiliates to pay dues or purchase programming.

This brought out the heavyweights at The Washington Post. In an op-ed titled, “The gap we need NPR to fill,” by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor and current vice president at large, and Robert Kaiser, an associate editor and senior correspondent at the Post, they argued that NPR was filling a void in national and international news left by shrinking commercial news media, “But equally important to us is local news coverage, which has been even more severely weakened by shrunken reporting staffs and ambitions at newspapers and commercial stations in too many cities and towns.”

According to Downie and Kaiser, “One-quarter of CPB’s annual appropriation from Congress ($430 million this fiscal year) goes to public radio stations, contributing an average of 10 to 15 percent of their budgets (less for bigger stations and more for smaller ones).”

But as Chris Plante, the great talk-show host on WMAL in Washington, D.C. pointed out, the Washington bureau of NPR has about 600 employees. In other words, another bloated government bureaucracy. Scott Simon, who hosts the one-day-a-week show “Weekend Edition Saturday,” makes over $300,000 a year. If they are so concerned about keeping small-market stations open, they can learn to share the wealth.

A few things about the release of the tapes by O’Keefe. He released both an 11-minute edited version, and the more than two hour full length version, both posted online. The two versions were compared in detail on Glenn Beck’s new website, The Blaze, sort of a Huffington Post of the right. The Blaze was critical of O’Keefe’s 11-minute version, indicating it took some things out of context and created some misleading impressions.

Russ Baker, writing for Business Insider, went after O’Keefe for the same reasons. They both made some very valid points. One example, from Baker: “Edited Video: NPR exec appears to be criticizing the Tea Party. Raw Video: NPR exec is quoting two influential longtime Republicans’ complaints about how their party has been taken over by extreme elements, then personally agrees.”

But at least O’Keefe posted the full two-hour version, which largely gets him off the hook for the way he edited it. It is called transparency, and it allowed anyone who wanted to check out the whole tape to do so. The network news organizations should do that more often.

This latest O’Keefe sting has reignited a debate about whether or not it is a legitimate practice for journalists to deceptively record someone, without their knowledge, for the sake of a news story. O’Keefe was a guest on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with Howard Kurtz on March 13th. The following is an edited version of the relevant portions of that interview:

KURTZ: Now, you describe [MEAC] as a front group, and look, clearly, you got the story, it became a very big story. But in order to get that story, your team had to lie. You had a couple of guys impersonating these wealthy Muslim donors, and you set up a fake Website. So why isn’t that unethical?

O’KEEFE: Well, I think journalists have been doing this for a long time. I think it’s a form of investigative reporting that you use to seek and find the truth. People are not going to be honest with you when you have a notebook or you’re in front of a podium.

I mean, Vivian Schiller, on Monday, at the National Press Club, misled America when she said that she needed federal money to survive, or she implied that. The next day, we have the chief fundraising executive saying that they don’t, and they don’t want federal money in the long run.

So I think reporters do a lot of stenography in this country. They do a lot of damage control, they do a lot of punditry. But real investigative reporting is showing things for what they are.

KURTZ: Soand yes, some networks have done this. There’s less of it these days.

But you’re saying the means justify the ends (sic), you’re willing to use deceptive tactics to get to the truth. That’s your justification?

O’KEEFE: No, that’s not what I said. I said investigative reporting, — it’s sometimes justified to go under cover in order to get to the truth…it’s a form of guerrilla theater…he’s willing to meet with strangers tied — they claim that they’re getting money from the Muslim Brotherhood, and he’s willing to have a conversation in public.

Remember, there’s no expectation of privacy. He’s meeting with two strangers in a public place, in a business meeting. His organization is funded with taxpayer dollars. So I think

KURTZ: I understand. Obviously, he doesn’t know he’s being videotaped…You put the full video online of this encounter in the Georgetown restaurant with Ron Schiller. Was that in part to [blunt] some of the criticism you got during the ACORN sting when the ACORN video was edited and people said, well, let’s see the whole thing?

O’KEEFE: Yes. I mean, all journalism is edited. There certainly was no context in those ACORN tapes that were mitigated by the unedited tapes. That was just hyperbole. Well, they say it’s edited. But we released the full video right away this time so that people couldn’t use that argument. Even though it’s not a legitimate argument, people use it.

All journalists,CNN edits all their broadcasts in order to pick the relevant and salient portions of the conversation. This is something that they use against us. It’s reallyit doesn’t make sense and it’s been debunked.

KURTZ: Well, the key, of course, is not to edit it in a misleading fashion.Like it or not, hidden cameras and recorders have been around for a long time, and will continue to be used to catch people revealing things they would never say if they knew they were being recorded. “60 Minutes” used them to expose medical con men, ABC used them in the infamous Food Lion case, and NBC uses them for its “To Catch a Predator” series. Ironically, NPR aired a story on March 10th in which they used a hidden recorder. So perhaps it depends on who is the victim of a sting, and who is doing the stinging.

The Past and Future of NPR

NPR was created by Congress in 1967 almost as an afterthought as part of the Public Broadcasting Act, which primarily created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS. NPR’s first on-air broadcast was in May of 1971. Today CPB gives most of its money to 368 TV stations and over 900 radio stations.

The most fundamental issue raised in this latest chapter, that went from the O’Keefe undercover sting to the House vote, is whether or not the federal government should be establishing and supporting news organizations.

Jill Lawrence, senior correspondent for Politics Daily and a self-described “huge fan” of public broadcasting, wrote recently that “it’s time to end [public broadcasting’s] role as a political football and a symbol of what government shouldn’t be doing. It’s time to find another way to help public broadcasting thrive.” She is convinced that its supporters would step up their donations and easily make up the difference and then some. That view is borne out by several studies, such as by Mediamark, which have shown that NPR listeners are 66 percent wealthier than the average American, and three times as likely to be college graduates.

In 2003, philanthropist Joan Kroc left more than $200 million to NPR, which as an endowment produces about $10 million a year for their use. Leftist billionaire George Soros gave $1.8 million to NPR to hire 100 new reporters. Jill Lawrence also argues that public broadcasting may have to change its name, but with licensing fees, selling programming to cable and satellite, more advertising, and more fundraising from its 30 million plus listeners a month, the Corporation for Independent, or Quality Broadcasting would thrive. And it would all be free of government strings and political oversight. It’s called Win-Win.

In addition, the Obama administration has shown an interest in subsidizing private news organizations. Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, “News is a public good. We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

That is an even worse idea than public broadcasting. For the government to pick favorites in the news business underlines the whole problem with this idea. Should the government publish a national newspaper? Then we wouldn’t need any private publishers. The same holds true for TV and radio networks. The problems with this are as obvious as they are numerous. Should taxpayers be required to subsidize news organizations? If “journalists” receive taxpayers’ dollars, should those taxpayers, through their congressional representatives, have oversight powers? Are reporters going to dig hard to investigate the chairman of a congressional committee who can cut off or increase their funding? Will news organizations provide more favorable coverage to a political party that wants to cut off their funds, versus one that wants to increase them?

The issue is framed by the liberal media as the GOP wanting to kill Barney and “Sesame Street.” The truth is “Sesame Street” doesn’t need federal subsidies. It earns a fortune in profits.

The bottom line is that NPR should be freed from taxpayer oversight for the sake of all concerned. They don’t need it, the taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for it, and the government has no business being in the news business.•

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media. He can be contacted at

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