Thursday, March 10, 2011

What NPR fiasco teaches about 'gotcha' politics: March 10, 2011 column


The NPR fiasco teaches two lessons about how the world works in 2011.

The first is timeless: Speaking your mind to strangers might seem like a good idea at the time, but, like accepting a third martini, it can backfire fast.

The second is a new twist on a classic: You’re on Candid Camera!

No, I don’t mean that Candid Camera -- the happy, laugh-filled TV show created by Allen Funt more than half a century ago. Today, anyone with a political agenda and a video camera can catch people at work or at play and post edited videos on the Web. Welcome to the marriage of technology and “gotcha” politics.

Here’s how it worked against NPR. Ron Schiller, the former top fundraiser at NPR, unburdened himself, um, liberally to two men he didn’t know but thought were high-rolling potential donors.

Over a long lunch with two supposed emissaries of a Muslim front group offering NPR $5 million, Schiller said Republicans are “anti-intellectual.” Tea partiers are “scary…seriously racist, racist people,” not “just Islamaphobic but really xenophobic,” who believe in sort of white, middle-American gun-toting.”

What disturbed and disappointed him most, Schiller confided at the tony restaurant in Washington’s Georgetown, is that “the educated, so-called elite in this country is too small a percentage of the population.” Jews control the media, including newspapers, he said, but not NPR. Oh, and NPR would be better off in the long run without its federal subsidy.

After video of the chatty Schiller hit the Web Tuesday, NPR was ready to change the name of its flagship news program from All Things Considered to Pass the Pepto-Bismol.

It turned out that Schiller’s “donors” were running a sting. They not only had a hidden video camera but they also arranged for a stretch limo to ferry Schiller and a colleague back to work.

They were conservative activists under the direction of James O’Keefe, 26, a self-styled muckraker who is making a career of trying to bring down liberal organizations. To carry off his sting, O’Keefe invented the Muslim organization and its Web site and e-mail NPR asking for a meeting.

After O’Keefe posted the video on his own site,, first Schiller and then his boss, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller – they’re not related – were ousted.

An NPR spokeswoman stressed that the imposters “repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept.” She also said, “We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for.”

After NPR officials and others complained the edited video showed Ron Schiller’s remarks out of context, O’Keefe posted a longer version he said was unedited,

O’Keefe first made a name for himself in 2009 with a hidden-camera sting involving ACORN. Impersonating a pimp, he went with a young woman playing a prostitute to several ACORN offices around the country seeking advice on taxes and housing for a brothel. Congress later severed funding with the ACORN group.

In January 2010, he and three friends received probation for trying to wiretap the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

O’Keefe’s video was catnip for members of Congress already eyeing NPR for budget cuts. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., still wants to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s $430 million annual budget, of which about $90 million goes to NPR. In the Senate, Sens. Jim DeMint, R- S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are also pushing for an end to funding for public broadcasting.

For NPR, the federal share is small, but individual stations also receive federal funds and buy programming from NPR. Ron Schiller said at lunch that NPR would definitely survive without federal funds. Conservatives have been angry at NPR since commentator Juan Williams was fired after he said it made him nervous to see air travelers in Muslim clothing. He since has gone to Fox News.

Now it’s O’Keefe with a fundraising pitch. “We’ve just exposed the true hearts and minds of NPR and their executives,” he brags in a letter to taxpayers on his site. He asks for donations so he can expand and equip his cadre of “citizen journalists.”
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent commentary, Marsha.

    We need less "gotcha" journalism. But, NPR would be doing itself a favor is it were more balanced in its news coverage. Non-democrats would be more likely to support funding for NPR, if they (NPR) treated all parties the same.