A video sting targeting former NPR fund-raising executive Ron Schiller could create political and public-relations problems for the news organization – just as it steels itself for a battle with congressional Republicans over federal funding.
In comments made to a hidden camera, Mr. Schiller called the tea party movement that propelled Republicans to huge congressional gains in the midterm elections "scary" and "seriously racist." In addition, he complained that America did not have enough "educated, so-called elite" citizens, and that the Republican Party was anti-intellectual. Perhaps most damaging, however, was Schiller's statement that NPR would do better without federal funding.
The video is the work of James O'Keefe, the sting artist who took down ACORN in 2009, and it marks the second time in as many months that conservative provocateurs have targeted an organization they see as liberal in a bid to persuade Congress to defund it. In February, O'Keefe protegée Lila Rose released videos that suggested Planned Parenthood employees were willing to collude with sex workers to procure abortions for under-age girls.
An attempt to defund NPR in 1995 failed as listeners bombarded conservative congressmen with phone calls and letters. But Schiller's unguarded comments indicate that NPR itself has inwardly debated whether or not defunding could actually ultimately help the 41-year-old journalism organization's mission.
"My inclination is that cutting off federal funding to NPR might be a good thing, since this kind of political interference is not healthy for the media in general," says Tom Edsall, a professor at Columbia Journalism School.
But he also suggests that government funding might be forcing NPR to be more even-handed than it would otherwise be. "For a place like NPR, being tied to the government may in the end help them to stay fairly objective," he adds.
For its part, NPR has renounced the comments of Schiller, who left NPR on Monday for unrelated reasons, according to officials. “We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for,” NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm said in a statement.
What is the video about?
The video shows Schiller and another NPR fund-raising executive having lunch with two purported members of a fake Muslim organization called the Muslim Education Action Center, which is falsely offering a $5 million gift to NPR. The group also set up a fake website that explicitly stated that it supported the spread of sharia law.
The two actors clearly goad Schiller into making observations, most of which are made after Schiller explicitly takes off his "NPR hat" to give his personal opinion. For example, Schiller says there aren't enough "educated, so-called elite" Americans, adding that public opinion is driven by "this very large uneducated part of the population."
Of tea partyers, he adds: "I mean, basically they ... believe in sort of white, middle-America, gun-toting. I mean, it's scary. They're seriously racist, racist people."
The impact could be serious, because the comments play right into the hands of those who believe that NPR is a "socialist adventure," says Stephen Ward, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"I don't think any of this helps the survival, let alone the quality existence, of public broadcasting in the United States," says Mr. Ward. "You can argue that these comments ... don't reflect the grander importance of public broadcasting, but in a world of agenda-setting journalism, these are perfect examples for people who dislike or oppose public broadcasting to use for political purposes."
"The timing couldn't be worse," agreed Maxie Jackson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.
On one hand, Schiller said he's "very proud" of NPR's handling of the Juan Williams debacle, in which the veteran commentator was fired in October after acknowledging that he felt fearful when flying with people in Muslim dress. NPR President Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller) has said recently that the network botched the Williams firing.
At the same time, NPR is fighting an effort to defund $90 million of Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants, which are allotted to independent affiliate stations which then pay NPR for its broadcasting. Ms. Schiller has said she wants federal funding to continue, primarily so that public radio stations in far-flung parts of the US can survive.
But Mr. Schiller said: “Well frankly, it is clear that we would be better off in the long-run without federal funding. The challenge right now is that if we lost it all together we would have a lot of stations go dark.”
Conservatives have latched on to this comment. "At a time when the country is upside down by more than a trillion dollars, can we really afford to provide huge subsidies to entities that openly state that they don't need the money?" said Mark Meckler, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, in USA Today.
From a media perspective, however, some experts worry that Mr. O'Keefe's partisan "gotcha" tactics could be a slippery slope for both sides of the political spectrum. "If [these kinds of sting videos] become the methodology of journalism in general, then we're going to sink the reputation of journalists and bury it forever in a grave," says Ward.