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NPR's former CEO wonders what will come next

Days after losing her job as head of public radio giant NPR, former president and CEO Vivian Schiller had one prediction about the controversy kicked up by a video sting, which led the organization's board to ask for her resignation.

Getting rid of her wasn't going to stop the crusade against NPR's federal funding.

"The pressure to defund public broadcasting is so great; did I believe (my resignation) was going to stop that train?" she said Wednesday. "No."

Schiller's words proved prophetic. The next day, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to strip NPR of its federal funding and restrict public broadcasting stations' ability to buy programs from the service. (Full disclosure: I provide commentaries to NPR occasionally as a freelance contributor.)

Few experts predict the measure will have an immediate practical effect. The Democratically controlled U.S. Senate is not expected to take up the bill and the White House on Thursday released a statement critical of the legislation.

Still, there is fear a cut in funding may be negotiated in the future. And some who support public broadcasting worry that the video sting that cost Schiller her job — in which its chief fundraiser loosed some seriously insulting comments about tea party members — may actually make it tougher to work on legitimate problems.

Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, wrote recently, "we unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite," calling for more inclusion.

In the past, NPR and other public broadcasters beat back attempts to cut federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by arguing that it helps support institutions most Americans like, such as Sesame Street. But this latest House bill isolated NPR as the sole target, turning the organization into a symbol of liberal bias for many conservatives.

"Republicans said today that the arrogant liberal sneers at taxpayers in Flyover Country deserve to be met by NPR raising its own money in its own fancy cafes," wrote L. Brent Bozell, president of conservative watchdog Media Research Center, after Thursday's House vote.

Critics may disagree on whether NPR's news programming is biased toward liberals. But, as Bozell's colleague at the MRC, director of research Tim Graham, told me earlier this month, there's no mistaking the lack of conservative voices at the helm of non-news NPR shows such as Fresh Air and The Diane Rehm Show.

Now, the drive to end federal financing for public broadcasting has a much more controversial face.

Which left me with one question for Schiller: Did she realize, after the explosion of conservative condemnation following the firing of pundit Juan Williams last year, that some opponents of the service would do anything to further its decline?

"Clearly, (the video) was a pretty ruthless act," she said, observing later that the executive quoted in the video said himself many times there was a firewall at NPR between fundraising and news operations.

"I did not expect that we would be subject to this kind of sting, is all I can say," Schiller added. "That's a level of ruthlessness and cynicism that's pretty mind boggling."

Yet, it isn't out of character for the video's originator, James O'Keefe. First made famous by a hidden camera video in which he claimed to be the boyfriend of a prostitute seeking tax advice from the advocacy group ACORN, O'Keefe seems to specialize in targeting the weakness of institutions he wants to devalue.

In ACORN's case, it was the Democrat-friendly group's long history of management and administrative problems, leaving ground-level staffers ill trained and lacking supervision.

Did he make the NPR video work by targeting its managerial weakness and focus on a well-educated, relatively wealthy, liberal, arts-friendly audience?

"This was an isolated case — I don't buy that," Schiller countered. "To suggest this somehow reveals a deeper truth about NPR's journalism, that's just nonsense."

For Schiller, 49, her March 9 departure from NPR is a still-fresh wound. She has no idea what she might try next, beyond wanting to stay involved with media and journalism and no clear advice for any successor at NPR.

The organization she has departed faces a crossroads: With its CEO, top fund-raiser and head of news recently removed, it has no permanent, high-level executive to face down critics in Congress or among the general public.

NPR may only get 2 percent of its funding from the CPB, but an official at Tampa PBS affiliate WEDU-Ch. 3 said over 13 percent of its budget comes from the agency, or $1.2 million. Tampa's other public broadcaster, WUSF Public Media, uses CPB money for 20 percent of the budget at its TV and radio stations combined, or about $1.8 million.

NPR officials say stations in smaller markets often get an even greater percentage of their budgets from the CPB.

Affiliates like WUSF buy shows from NPR, adding to its growing audience share by broadcasting them. And some of the organization's most popular shows — Fresh Air and Car Talk, for instance — were developed by member stations using grants from the CPB, making their separation from NPR a difficult scenario.

Still, if NPR keeps losing its image war, the consequences across the public radio industry might make separation look like small potatoes indeed.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521. See his blog, the Feed, at Tampabay.com/blogs/media.

NPR's former CEO wonders what will come next 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 5:31am]
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