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As the House votes to defund NPR, ex-CEO Vivian Schiller notes "my separation from NPR (hasn't slowed) this train."



web0903schiller.jpgShe called it, a day in advance.

Speaking with me on Wednesday, former NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller predicted her ouster in the wake of an embarrassing video sting would hardly slow conservative critics of the organization, as it faces the biggest struggle in its recent history to retain federal funding.

"Given what’s going on, the pressure that is on public broadcasting right now, (the NPR board felt) that it would be prudent for me to go," she said, recounting the circumstances that led her to resign under pressure after a secretly-recorded video surfaced showing NPR's top fund-raiser saying insulting things about conservative Tea Party members. "The pressure to defund public broadcasting is great – so, did I believe (my leaving) was going to stop that train? No.”

On Thursday, her prognosis came true, as the GOP-controlled House of Representatives approved legislation stripping NPR of its federal funding and restricting member stations from buying its programming. The bill itself may not go far -- the Democrat-dominated Senate isn't expected to consider the law and President Obama isn't expected to sign it.

npr-schiller-sting_full_600.jpgBut the move signals a new front opened in the war over funding for public broadcasting. In the past, those opposing Republican efforts to end federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had powerful symbols on their side, including Sesame Street's Big Bird and Elmo. But the House's new bill shows an attempt to target NPR -- its public image battered from controversy over the video and controversial firing of pundit Juan Williams.

In this manner, conservative activists such as video prankster James O'Keefe may be trying to replace the more admired face of public broadcasting in Sesame Street characters with a vision of NPR as elitist and biased toward liberals. And Schiller became the one of most recent casualties in that fight. (Full disclosure: I provide occasional commentaries on TV to NPR as a freelance commentator).

Speaking about a week after her departure from NPR, Schiller said she hadn't yet decided what she might do next and didn't have enough distance to offer advice to her successor.  Here's an edited Q&A of that conversation:

Do you feel any differently about journalism considering how this controversy played out in the press?

james-okeefe.jpg“I don’t feel any different about legitimate journalism. There are a lot of pretenders out there. That’s what the O’Keefe’s thing is. I knew that was there before, that doesn’t come as any surprise to me. I don’t consider that journalism…I consider that cynicism. I don’t know what you’d call it, it’s not journalism for sure.”

How did you hear about the video O'Keefe made of NPR fund-raiser Ron Schiller (no relation) making those comments?
“I heard about it Tuesday morning (March 8), when it was posted. I saw it with the rest of the world. I was pretty stunned. I was stunned at the deception. And, frankly, I was pretty disappointed about some of comments I saw. It was pretty shocking. Instantly – I knew this was pretty catastrophic, as soon as I heard about it. I knew that the comments Ron Schiller made on tape would be very damaging, especially right now, with federal funding in play."

In the days since the video surfaced, some have pointed out that the edited, 11-minute version is quite different than the two-hour version. Did you move too soon in disciplining Ron Schiller over the controversy?
“In terms of the part I was involved with...I didn't discipline anybody.  Among the (video's) many problems…is the fact that the editing was highly deceptive. That’s journalism 101. But I was still troubled nonetheless by some of the comments that he made. Even in the two hour version, they were still there. (Ron Schiller, who had already announced he was leaving for another job) had already resigned. The action I took was to put him on administrative leave while we investigated further. With Ron already leaving, we mutually agreed that it was best for him to just go. But I didn’t discipline anybody."

But didn't accelerating his departure make it look as if he'd been punished, fueling NPR critics?
"His comments were his comments. Sadly, the comments are still there even in the two-hour version."

Activists like O'Keefe seem to target weaknesses in institutions they oppose. With ACORN, it was their reputation for disorganized leadership. Is it possible he took advantages of weaknesses in NPR's leadership and its image as a liberal-friendly outlet? 
“This is an isolated case...The events that took place in Café Milano have nothing to do with NPR’s journalism. Ron’s not a journalist. In the long tape, he even makes clear about the firewall (between fund raising and news). To suggest that somehow this is revealing a deeper truth about NPR’s journalism is just nonsense."

npr_headquarters.jpgDid you underestimate the lengths to which NPR's enemies would go to hurt the organization?

"I like Jon Stewart’s comments, which have gotten a lot of play (The Daily Show host joked last year that NPR "brought a tote bag full of David Sedaris books to a knife fight with Fox" amid the controversy over Williams' firing). Clearly, this is a pretty ruthless act. I did not know we were going to be subject to this sting, is all I can say. That’s a level of ruthlessness and cynicism that’s pretty mind boggling."

Republicans failed to cut NPR's funding when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Why is it more of threat now?
“The difference now is the level of deficit; that’s what makes this much more serious than the threat to public broadcasting in 2005 or 1995.

But wouldn't that require the White House to go along with cuts? Is there a concern the administration may negotiate a cut in funding to public broadcasting? "All I can tell you is that the threat is serious and everybody’s taking that threat seriously.”

Since NPR only gets 2 percent of its funding from the CPB and has a growing online presence, some critics say the organization's priorities are diverging from the member stations and it should sever those ties.

“Many stations are dependent on (federal money) for a large portion of their revenues. Those stations license programs from NPR. If the funding went away, the ripple effect would travel throughout the system. NPR is a membership organization. It’s governed by the membership and it was created to serve the membership. These programs are created by the stations. If the station are financially vulnerable, it's all linked together. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of speculation about how (separation) could work. But the connections run very deep. The notion of trying to untangle the stations from NPR doesn't work."

Any advice for your successor?
“I’m still – it’s all still so new, that. I would really need to think that through. I think we were on the right track on so many levels – extending the journalism, developing multiple platforms, new radio programming. I would hope that work continues. That would be tragic if all that work slowed down. That’s what I’m clear on. Let me put it this way – I'm not the least bit worried about the journalism. That part is in good hands. In terms of the rest of it; I’m not there any more."

[Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 9:09am]


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