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NPR's Schiller & Schiller: Many Political Missteps on the Road to Resigning

3 years ago
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In retrospect it seems inevitable. Take a hostile political environment, a red-hot spotlight and relatively inexperienced leadership, mix well, and you get tumult at NPR.

Political naivete and tin ears are the threads running through the saga of Vivian Schiller, forced out as NPR's CEO on Wednesday, and Ron Schiller, no relation, who quit as NPR's top fundraiser on Tuesday. Vivian Schiller is widely credited for dramatic improvements in NPR's web presence and mobile applications, and she is a strong defender of NPR's journalism. But there's no ignoring the multiple embarrassments that are undercutting NPR's mission and efforts to keep Republicans in Congress from ending its federal funding.

First there was the firing of news analyst Juan Williams for a comment he made about Muslims on Fox News. Then there was Vivian Schiller's remark that Williams should have kept his views "between himself and his psychiatrist." Then there was her press release thanking President Barack Obama for being nice to public broadcasting in his budget. This week there's Ron Schiller's downfall at the hands of James O'Keefe, the same conservative sting artist who brought down ACORN with secret videotapes, and now Vivian Schiller's own resignation as CEO.

Her ouster was "not unfair" given the turmoil of the past few months, one editorial employee at NPR told me. Lost in the continuing noise is NPR's journalism. "Williams was just starting to recede, and now this," the employee said. "We need to remind people of who and what we are."

Vivian Schiller came to NPR after holding executive positions at the New York Times, the Discovery Channel, and CNN. She had not been a CEO before and she had not headed an organization that relied on Congress for part of its budget. She hired Ron Schiller as NPR's top fundraiser -- vice president for development of NPR and president of the NPR Foundation -- in September 2009.

At the time, Ron Schiller was vice president for alumni relations and development for the University of Chicago. According to NPR's announcement, Schiller also had "led fundraising on behalf of Carnegie Mellon, Northeastern University, Cornell, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Eastman School of Music." In other words, before NPR, Schiller's background was in academic politics – not the real-world kind.

Still, whether it's atop the Ivory Tower or inside the Beltway, wouldn't it be standard procedure to research a potential $5 million donor, in this case the Muslim Education Action Center, before going out to lunch to discuss the gift? That didn't happen before Ron Schiller met with two "citizen journalists posing as Muslims" from the group, as the O'Keefe video describes them. After the lunch, NPR determined MEAC and the $5 million offer to be fake, but not before Schiller was captured on tape calling the tea party movement "seriously racist" and the Republican Party "fanatically involved in people's personal lives."

Given the political environment, it's hard to believe NPR wouldn't be especially careful about the face it presents to the public. Liberal organizations are known targets, not just of conservative budget cutters, but of O'Keefe and other secret videographers. First ACORN, then Planned Parenthood, now NPR. Even if Ron Schiller didn't anticipate a scam, why didn't he leave when his lunch partners at Café Milano started talking about the Muslim Brotherhood, Zionism and Jews controlling the media?

People close to NPR and Schiller call the incident inexplicable. "You have to question his judgment," NPR ombudswoman Alicia Shepard said on the "Diane Rehm Show." She added, incredulously: "You meet with complete strangers and you blab your personal opinions in public? You don't think that maybe you're going to be a target at NPR?"

Every media outlet has an image and a role to protect, so most of us do our best to cultivate goodwill -- not alienation -- as we talk to people around the country. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik describes NPR's identity this way: "A place of civility, open-mindedness, where people can hear themselves reflected in our coverage and on our air." Obviously that is not how Schiller represented his organization at that lunch, perhaps because he's not used to raising money for a media outlet in the crossfire of politics.

Despite all her high-level experience, Vivian Schiller, too, was new to being "steeped in so much seething politics," as Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC's "On The Media," told Rehm. Nor did Schiller have "the keenest ear" in dealing with the public or the "political intrigue" that dogs NPR these days, Gladstone added.

The supreme example of her unkeen ear was firing Williams in a way that made it seem like his offense was either saying he sometimes got nervous around Muslims on planes (and adding that we shouldn't stereotype like that), or saying it on Fox News. Shepard said NPR had "a long list of issues" with Williams and should have just let his contract run out.

A lower-profile misstep was the thank-you press release in which Vivian Schiller called Obama's budget "a vote of confidence" in NPR and said she was "grateful to the Obama administration." That was viewed as less than helpful by some inside NPR, since it cemented an impression of public broadcasting as a Democratic cause.

In fact it's only recently that public broadcasting has become a party-line issue. In 1995, for instance, five Senate Republicans -- William Cohen and Olympia Snowe of Maine, William Roth of Delaware, Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Warner of Virginia -- voted to restore funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund PBS, NPR and local stations. Four years later, Jim Jeffords of Vermont voted against killing an increase in CPB funds. As recently as 2007, 127 House Republicans joined 230 Democrats to defeat an amendment to eliminate CPB.

There are still Republicans who love public broadcasting, but they no longer love the 10 percent of its budget (currently $430 million) that Congress provides. California Rep. David Dreier is a fan in that category. Last month he voted for the House budget that ended federal funds for CPB, though his preference would be to phase out the money over a transition period.

Some unlikely people agree with Dreier. One of them is me. And another is Ron Schiller, who told his "Muslim" dining companions that ending the money would allow NPR more independence and encourage more philanthropists to give. "It is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding," Schiller said. "NPR would definitely survive and most of the stations would survive."

(An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information from a PBS official. A PBS development executive met with members of the same fake Muslim group as NPR and, like NPR, decided against accepting a gift).

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Filed Under: Media, Budget, Analysis

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33 Comments

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Michael

NPR exhibits the sort of politburo-think that taxpayer-funded media produces. I would rather they express their elitist prejudices to their hearts' content... using their own money, not funds involuntarily extracted from taxpayers.

March 11 2011 at 4:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
TellsItLikeItIs1234

NPR is steeped in politics. How did two people with absolutely no political skills end up in such important positions?

March 11 2011 at 3:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Rockin Steve

When NPR is defunded can American citizens stop bowing down to the Tea Party? 98% of TV/Radio Talk/News is Conservative. Is the 1st Amendment only for wacko's. If you don't like anything including my comments then don't read them or watch them.

March 10 2011 at 3:00 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rockin Steve's comment
Michael

The question is, should the publication of biased opinion of whatever source be funded by taxes?

March 11 2011 at 4:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
akristel

I find it astonishing that people like the Shiller's do not believe that anyone who disagrees with them have some kind of intellectual flaw. I have watched PBS for well over 30 years and listened to NPR occassionally while I am on the road and I am always amazed at the intolerance of anyone who is not in agreement with them. They have no problem having opinions that put down others nastily, if they are Liberal opinions. I loved the comment from Mr Folkenflik about NPR being a place of civility, etc. I believe that anyone with a differing point of view might not find it that civil. At least Juan Williams didn't.
I just hope that if NPR does continue, that they learn a lesson and decide to open their arms to people of many different points of view and treat them civilly. It will make it so much more interesting and educational.

March 10 2011 at 1:40 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
kenmcc2

All this business about "keen ears" and so forth misses the point. These people are involved in journalism, where an objective mind should be paramount. Firing Juan Williams exposed a deep streak of political correctness and the comments from this Schiller demonstrate a decidedly leftist mind. There are other NPR personalities out there (read Nina Totenberg) with a decided leftist orientation. To their critics, this bias fuels the great mistrust that has sprung up against the left leaning media. With these actions and the opinions reflected and expressed, you can just imagine the sorts of conversation among these people off camera and off mike. So how can they be trusted to present an objective news broadcast? All in all, it would seem they can't, hence the drive to cut funding. It's hard to argue with that now....

March 10 2011 at 1:26 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
passin' through

jn61385 said: "... they should also rescind the tax-exempt status of every religious group or organization that engages in any political activity.".............................Tax law as it is today and has always been that churches cannot use church funds or the pulpit to directly engage in politics or they can lose their tax deductiblity status. Course that never stopped Rev.'s Jackson and or Sharpton they get an exemption to the law because they're dem minorities.

March 10 2011 at 1:01 PM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
Bonbon

These NPR people have no business running anything the way they treated and talked about Juan Williams.

March 10 2011 at 1:00 PM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply
passin' through

Quoting the article a NPR "... employee said. "We need to remind people of who and what we are."
.....V. Schiller and R. Schiller have done exactly just that.

March 10 2011 at 12:55 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
Randy

Protecting helpless lives, creating jobs, creating wealth, protecting workers from union thuggery, stopping dangerous political correctness, stopping Obama from spitting on the Constitution, and letting the free markets restore us to greatness. That's the GOP!!

March 10 2011 at 12:03 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
MEK

The problem was not political missteps. The problem was, and is, that taxpayer money should never be used to subsidize any news outlet, as there is an inherent conflict of interest.

March 10 2011 at 11:20 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to MEK's comment
Randy

Right! and in this case NPR really isn't a News Outlet. They are more of a pallet or sounding board for the Radical Left Extremists! I might feel otherwise if they even showed a slight amount of diversity, balance, or fairness!

March 10 2011 at 12:07 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

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