Roving thoughts and provocations

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Embattled Public Radio

NPR
Former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels in Afghanistan, 2003

National Public Radio has taken a beating over the last two weeks: first its chief executive was forced to resign amid a scandal caused by a right-wing frame-up, and then, on Thursday, the GOP-dominated House voted to cut off all federal funding to NPR. For the moment, that bill seems unlikely to get far in the Senate, but it suggests just how much public radio has been undermined in recent weeks and months. What’s almost as disturbing as the persistent right-wing attacks on an institution respected and relied upon by the broad public is NPR’s seeming unwillingness to stand up for itself.

The trouble began on March 8, when the right-wing video gotcha artist James O’Keefe released an edited version of a tape he’d made of a conversation with an NPR fundraiser named Ron Schiller. In O’Keefe’s account, Schiller was lured to a meeting with potential donors—who were really “journalists” from O’Keefe’s Project Veritas posing as members of a Muslim organization dedicated to spreading sharia law throughout the world—by the bait of a possible $5 million donation. In the meeting Schiller referred to the Tea Party as racists. When O’Keefe released his tapes on March 8, NPR did its best to set a new record for prostration, with Schiller resigning in a time that might have beat the Obama administration’s ditching of Shirley Sherrod from the US Department of Agriculture after a similar videotape scandal last year (Sherrod was portrayed as making racist comments in a speech to the NAACP). A day later the head of NPR news, Vivian Schiller (no relation) was tossed overboard by NPR’s board as well, in an apparent effort to appease the Republicans—many of them Tea Party members who pushed through the House bill to eliminate NPR’s federal funding. Apparently they weren’t appeased.

So let’s start with the tape. When Sherrod was forced from her post last July, it took a few days for people to actually look at the whole videotape, which turned out to show the opposite of the rightwing claim: she wasn’t in fact a racist, and hadn’t discriminated against white farmers. The Obama administration apologized; the USDA tried to hire her back. So you would think that NPR (a journalism outfit after all) might actually have asked to see the whole tape, not the edited version. They didn’t—even though O’Keefe posted what he claims is the raw video on his website soon after the release of the edited tape, urging viewers to “judge for themselves.” In fact, the first real scrutiny of it came from, of all places, Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze. I don’t pretend to understand the various fractures in the far right, and I have recent personal reason not to trust Beck’s own journalism, but in this case his associate Pam Key did a remarkable job of demonstrating what a fraud O’Keefe pulled with the sound-bites he initially released. The comments about Tea Party racists turned out to be mainly Schiller’s reporting of what he’d heard from top Republican politicians; the part where he seemed to be laughing about the possibility of imposing sharia law turned out to have been lifted from a discussion earlier in the tape “recounting an unrelated and innocuous issue about confusion over names in the restaurant reservation. “

What you’re really watching on the tape is the usual embarrassing and craven work of fundraisers hoping that rich people will give them money. And what you’re really watching in the hair-trigger reaction of NPR is the constant fear that they’ll be caught out as liberals.

That fear is the interesting part of this story. Since NPR, as I’ve written recently in the Review, is (along with a few non-NPR programs that also run on public radio stations) pretty much the only radio operation actually drawing large numbers of listeners that’s not controlled by the right wing, movement conservatives have long wanted to wreck it—GOP congressmen have fought to cut its funding several times over the years. They’ve been beaten back each time because their constituents, especially in rural areas otherwise underserved by quality journalism, have crossed party lines to demand that the network be maintained. O’Keefe’s tape—released at the height of the recent funding battle—was a transparent effort to tar the network. And in large measure it worked. As one California newspaper editorialized, “NPR is the radio equivalent of Fox News—just on the other side of the bandwidth.”

But of course that’s not true. Fox News has resolutely ideological owners and managers, and they’ve turned their network into an ideological propaganda operation (anyone who doubts that should tune into Jon Stewart on any given evening). NPR may be run by spineless liberals, but the broadcast is impeccably balanced. Balanced to a fault—the great weakness of its news coverage has become an addiction to the Washington conventional wisdom, I suspect precisely because it’s the safest place to moor in our stormy partisan seas. I mean, on All Things Considered serious time is devoted every week to a discussion of the news between the Times‘s mild conservative David Brooks and the Post’s mild liberal E.J. Dionne. The chance of a new or alarming idea getting out in the course of that segment are dim, if not nil.

It’s why NPR’s news coverage gets better when its correspondents are looking at events overseas, or dealing with science, or culture, or anything that doesn’t require them to become crouched and cowering because it might provoke the charge of “liberal.” That addiction to safety is interesting—NPR’s news team is not nearly as bold as its counterparts at either the CBC or the BBC, which for instance fought a running battle with the Blair government over whether it had fudged its rationale for the war in Iraq. Those services get far more of their money from the government and sometimes seem out to prove that this hasn’t turned them into lapdogs. NPR’s direct federal grants are small—about $5 million per year—but member stations use much of their $64 million worth of federal funding to purchase programming from the network; under the House resolution those stations would have to stop sending that money through and would have to use it on their own local programs. It would in many ways be nice if the network could someday escape from this political mess, but as Schiller explained cogently in the unedited portions of the tape, the GOP measure, if approved by the Senate and White House, would probably spell doom for a number of rural stations.

As usual, Ira Glass, host of the remarkable This American Life, put it best. As he told the public radio program On The Media, NPR should have defended its newscast: “I feel like public radio should address this directly, because I think anybody who listens to our stations understands that what they’re hearing is mainstream media reporting,” Glass said. “We have nothing to fear from a discussion of what is the news coverage we’re doing. As somebody who works in public radio, it is killing me that people on the right are going around trying to basically rebrand us, saying that it’s biased news, it’s left wing news, when I feel like anybody who listens to the shows knows that it’s not. And we are not fighting back, we are not saying anything back. I find it completely annoying, and I don’t understand it.”

And an addendum to my previous piece about great radio: for anyone looking for a really amazing sampling of what producers and reporters are up to, check out Remix Radio, a terrific around-the-clock stream of random pieces that will clean your ears out.

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