Did a fundraising executive confirm the long-held suspicions of conservatives that National Public Radio is liberally biased?
Ron Schiller, who in a secretly-taped video called Tea Party members gun-toting racists and implied the media was a Zionist mouthpiece, gave a a staggeringly intemperate performance.
Which was also the polar opposite of the tone of programming currently found on NPR.
A spokesperson for NPR declined to be interviewed for this article, but Jennifer Ferro, general manager of NPR-signatory station KCRW, said she was horrified by Schiller’s comments.
“The journalists at NPR were sick to their stomach about this. They spend their days being fair and impartial and trying to get the story,” Ferro told TheWrap. “When this blows over, journalists should speak to O’Keefe about what was motivating him, because in the grand scheme of things, nothing we air is that controversial.”
According to O'Keefe's media mentor and collaborator, Andrew Breitbart, the conservative activist arranged the meeting with Schiller with pretty solid pre-conceived notions of what he might hear.
"There's nothing like seeing something before it happens," he told TheWrap.
For Breitbart and O’Keefe, NPR and the network of federally funded stations it feeds are a hotbed of liberal bias.
“What you are listening to on NPR are the incredibly articulate views of the liberal elite in America,” Breitbart told TheWrap. “ I do not like federal funding for news organizations period, but I especially do not like funding for news institutions that are part of a sophisticated propaganda campaign by the left.”
How about specifics? Breitbart didn't have any to offer off the cuff. It's the "tone," he explained.
Journalists and analysts say that the shows NPR produces are rigidly apolitical to the point of being bland. Aside from the issue of federal funding, NPR seems a poor whipping horse for the right.
Even as it strives to remain above the political fray, NPR’s response to the Schiller tape with the ouster of CEO Vivian Schiller seemed to validate the complaints of Breitbart and his army of political "Punk'd"-sters.
Compounding the problem and the perception of partisanship was NPR’s decision to fire analyst Juan Williams over anti-Muslim remarks he made last summer.
“Mainstream media organizations have put themselves in this impossible situation by claiming to be impartial when that sort of impartiality is impossible,” Marc Cooper, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, told TheWrap. “NPR's response is hyper sensitive, because they are apostles of the church of objectivity, and when a sinner appears or pops up they literally can’t deal with it.”
The current public flogging aside, it is difficult to comprehend just why NPR remains such a venerable target.
Though Breitbart says the tone of the shows is liberal and elitist, there is no stated bias in any of NPR’s news programming. The chamomile coated interviews that comprise “All Things Considered” or the beige coverage of news and politics found on “Morning Edition,” may not be populist, but nor are they ideological.
“I haven’t done a survey, but I think they do fabulous work. Most media is corporate and there is a much bigger corporate bias than a liberal one. I don’t think they have much of a corporate bias,” Sree Sreenivasan, professor of professional practice at Columbia School of Journalism, told TheWrap. “The culture is caught in black or white, left or right, but NPR isn’t like that.”
Likewise, NPR’s audience bridges the political spectrum. According to Mediamark Research, 37 percent consider themselves liberal, 28 percent are conservative, and 25 percent are centrists.
One other element of the controversy that has been largely ignored is that Schiller had no editorial input. He was simply a fundraiser trying to tell a big-ticket donor what he thought they wanted to here. Embarrassing, yes, but not the peek inside a left-wing conspiracy that Breitbart claims.
That doesn’t hold weight with some analysts. Schiller’s comments might not have been indicative of the newsroom’s views, but ultimately they argue that the buck stops with NPR.
“It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t a reporter. Public media in all dealings must be above board. I think it failed here,” Tom Glaisyer, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, told TheWrap.
Some such as “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart have griped that in the wake of mounting criticism, NPR has brought a “tote bag to a knife fight,” allowing the right to draw blood without mounting any sort of spirited defense.
Here, the issue of public funding is tying the organizations hands. While NPR only receives about 2 percent of its money from the federal government, grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting account on average for 15 percent of funding for the more than 1,100 public radio and television stations around the country.
That support is very much under attack from Republicans in Congress. Citing rising budget deficits, they are pushing to eliminate all federal funding for broadcasters.
“Whether NPR takes the high road or the low road has a direct impact on its 400 to 500 member stations," Ferro said. "It’s not fair for them to be in a fight, because NPR won’t get a black eye, it will be the other stations that can’t afford to be left with the bill."
In the short run then, it would be best to cancel any lunch dates with the Muslim Brotherhood.