Within a day, National Public Radio lost both its CEO and its head of fundraising, each ousted in the aftermath of a video sting by a conservative activist who captured the head of the NPR Foundation calling tea party members "racist" and saying the organization didn't need federal funding.
Vivian Schiller, NPR's president and CEO, resigned after the organization's board asked her to step down Tuesday night. She was caught up in the second recent damaging public scandal, after the controversial firing of pundit Juan Williams in October over his comments about Muslims. NPR Foundation president and chief fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) already had left.
The president of NPR's board of directors remained confident Wednesday that the organization could successfully confront conservative calls to end its federal funding, even as some Republican lawmakers insisted the video demonstrated NPR was too biased for government support.
"Everything I heard on that video was upsetting to my core," said board chief David Edwards in a conference call with reporters, insisting the organization needs federal support to continue. "We do have a responsibility to make people understand that we do not support these views."
(Full disclosure: I have contributed commentaries to NPR as a freelance pundit on TV issues.)
NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard resisted the notion that activist filmmaker James O'Keefe's video revealed a deeper bias, saying staffers there are angry at top executives' poor judgment in recent months. After checking with Ron Schiller to make sure his words weren't completely distorted, the ombudsman said Schiller admitted uttering the most controversial statements.
Shepard also noted that NPR's head of news, Ellen Weiss, was forced to resign in January over Williams' firing. The fear: that negotiations in Congress over funding NPR — the White House wants federal funding, the GOP doesn't — could swing closer to defunding now.
"How do you go forward when NPR is in the fight of its life and doesn't have a (permanent) CEO, head of news or head of development?" the ombudsman added. "I call that a wounded animal."
Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center, said Ron Schiller's words revealed a disdain for conservatives that seems a part of NPR's programming culture, even though Schiller did not work in the news department. Graham accused NPR of failing to balance controversial stories with conservative voices, noting that none of its high-profile, non-news hosts are conservative.
"When I listen to NPR, I want a little fairness and balance," he said, noting NPR's federal funding. "I want a little space for conservatives to speak."
On Tuesday, O'Keefe released the secretly taken video of a lunch meeting with Ron Schiller, who believed he was meeting with a Muslim education group that might give $5 million to NPR. During the lunch he decried an "anti-intellectual" component inside the Republican Party, calling tea partiers "xenophobic" and "fanatically involved in people's personal lives."
But O'Keefe has a history. He posed as the boyfriend to a prostitute in 2009, recording secret videos at offices of the voting rights group ACORN that seemed to show workers there providing advice on tax evasion and other crimes. The group lost its funding and political connections, yet California state prosecutors said the videos had been heavily edited and the original footage showed no crimes.
O'Keefe also was arrested last year on charges of trying to interfere with phone systems in the office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. And a female CNN reporter revealed O'Keefe attempted to lure her onto a boat filled with sex toys and pornography in August for another hidden camera stunt.
Should news organizations believe an activist willing to break the rules to get embarrassing video? "This does lower the bar (for journalists)," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "In years past, a prankster like O'Keefe would have to convince a news organization to publish the material themselves. Now, he can publish a video and (traditional journalists) can write about it, because it's already public. It's up to the public to choose between all these conflicting types of journalism."
About 2 percent of NPR's funding comes from the federal government. But at WUSF Public Media in Tampa, general manager JoAnn Urofsky noted that 20 percent of its budget for outlets WUSF-FM 89.7 and WUSF Ch. 16 comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or about $1.8 million total. Its CPB-funded project to cover health news across Florida, the Healthy State Collaborative, likely has enough funds to complete its work regardless of Congress' action, added Urofsky, who served on NPR's national board until 2009.
"When I first saw the video, I thought 'This can't be happening,' " said Urofsky, who has faced her own controversies over the delayed start of classical music station WSMR-FM 89.1. "It was a kick to the gut. I just hope people understand the difference between NPR and the station in their own community."