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
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
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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