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Schiller’s Exit Not End of Storm for NPR, Funding Debate

March 9, 2011 at 6:59 PM EST
NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller stepped down Wednesday -- a day after Ron Schiller, another high-level executive and no relation, was shown on a hidden camera criticizing Republicans and saying NPR would be better off without federal financing. Jeffrey Brown discusses the fallout with the New York Times' Brian Stelter.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, NPR’s CEO departs amid a growing storm.

CRAIG WINDHAM, National Public Radio: From NPR News in Washington, I’m Craig Windham.

The president and CEO of NPR, Vivian Schiller, has abruptly resigned today.

JEFFREY BROWN: News of Vivian Schiller’s departure followed yesterday’s release of this hidden-camera video. It showed NPR fund-raising executive Ron Schiller — no relation — at what he thought was a meeting with potential funders.

Among much else, he was heard disparaging Tea Party Republicans.

RON SCHILLER, National Public Radio: They are — they believe in sort of white, middle America, gun-toting — I mean, it’s pretty scary. They’re seriously racist.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he also commented on the hot-button issue of NPR’s use of public money.

RON SCHILLER: It is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, the video came as Republicans in Congress are pressing to eliminate more than $400 million a year in federal funding of public broadcasting, including PBS.

The man behind the video release was conservative activist James O’Keefe. His associates, posing as members of a fake Muslim organization, lunched with Ron Schiller in late February, offering to donate $5 million to NPR. The fund-raiser resigned yesterday, though he had been planning to leave NPR anyway.

Vivian Schiller had served in her post two years. She drew criticism last year over the firing of commentator Juan Williams, after he said on FOX News that flying with some Muslims scared him.

James O’Keefe has previously gone after the community action group ACORN with hidden cameras. And last year, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to bug the offices of Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

This afternoon, a spokeswoman at PBS, the TV side of public broadcasting that operates separately from NPR, said one of its executives also met with people who claimed to be with the same fake Muslim organization. Those discussions ended when PBS couldn’t confirm the group’s credentials.

For more on all this, I’m joined by Brian Stelter, media reporter for The New York Times.

Brian, you talked to Vivian Schiller and others today. Tell us about the decision to end her tenure.

BRIAN STELTER, The New York Times: The decision happened pretty quickly yesterday. It was all about 12 hours after this video emerged on the Internet.

It was seized upon by conservative blogs and also generally by the media as yet another setback for NPR. And, by about 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Vivian Schiller was on a phone call with NPR’s board of directors, many of whom are managers at local stations who have been frustrated for months about all the controversies that have surrounded NPR.

After about an hour, she offered to resign, if the board wished that to happen. And, sure enough, later in the evening, they decided they did want that, and she did resign. It was announced on Wednesday morning. And now NPR finds itself without a permanent chief executive or a chief of fund-raising.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, fill in a little bit more this — the video itself. As we said, it was a group saying it was a Muslim organization, but even further, they were saying they had some ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

BRIAN STELTER: That’s right.

This was a classic setup, where they were trying to goad the NPR executives into saying things on camera that were going to make news. Sometimes, the NPR executives didn’t take the bait. Sometimes, they just sat there and nodded their heads or didn’t – or didn’t comment.

But, other times, they did seem to take the bait. This executive, Ronald Schiller, said he was expressing his own personal opinions, but he was talking about Tea Party members as being racist. He was talking about Republicans generally as being anti-intellectual.

And, as we heard in the segment there, he also talked about the fact that NPR has federal funding and that NPR would be better off without it. That was seized upon quickly by congressional Republicans who say NPR shouldn’t have any federal funding. And I think, going forward here in the next few days, we will continue to hear that point come up again and again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let’s talk about that last point, because that, of course, is not the official — the official point of view of NPR.

BRIAN STELTER: That’s right.

NPR says that this federal funding is vital. It helps the average station by about 10 percent of their budget. And for some stations, that means $100,000. For other stations, that means millions of dollars. And it would be hard to recoup that money any other way.

I talked to station managers across the country today who said that it would mean less journalists, less high-quality programming, and in some cases, less transmitters and repeaters. These are the small stations that transmit signals out to rural areas. Clearly, this funding is important to those stations.

And maybe they could make up some of the difference from private groups and from citizens. But managers at stations are worried they wouldn’t be able to make up all of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. O’Keefe, who — the man behind all this, he has a history, as we said, of these kinds of provocative stings, right? I guess that’s what you would call them?

BRIAN STELTER: He does. And what he often relies on is compelling, edited videotapes that he can then get attention for in the media.

In the past, he’s used networks like FOX News to carry his messages. They will leak the videos very carefully in order to — in order to encourage maximum exposure of his videotapes. He did this with the group ACORN a while back. And — and now we see him going after NPR in the same way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, of course, as you mentioned, I mean, this — this was seized upon quickly. And of course, it’s something we watch with great interest here.

How much has — has NPR become the focus? I mean, how much have these kinds of developments…

BRIAN STELTER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … become a focal point for what is, after all, part of a much larger budget debate now?

BRIAN STELTER: You know, NPR becomes a symbol, really, I think, in this case.

Juan Williams was fired only a couple weeks before the election. So, some — some people that were running for office that are now in Congress actually see this as a campaign promise, to defund NPR, because to them, NPR is a symbol of what they view as liberal bias and as elitism. And they want to take that down.

Many of their constituents listen to NPR, most likely, but it has become a symbol for them. Even though it’s a relatively small amount of the budget, it’s — it’s a main talking point, I think, for — for some of these congressmen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and, briefly, NPR going forward, they — what do they tell you about how they try to separate them — separate themselves from what this fund-raiser did?

BRIAN STELTER: The fact that both he — both Ron Schiller and Vivian Schiller, who are unrelated, have both left is essentially a fresh start for NPR.

They hope this means they can — they can have a new direction with a new chief executive. But they’re going to have a tough time finding a new chief executive in the middle of this budget battle. The timing is not great for an organization that’s been beset by controversies for the next — for the last few months…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

BRIAN STELTER: … now to have to figure out a new way forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Brian Stelter of The New York Times, thanks very much.

BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.