2:21 PM EDT, March 18, 2011
Whenever conservatives smack around an institution that does good in the world, the dung-smeared fingerprints of hidden-camera hit man James O’Keefe seem to appear on the “scandal.” The 26-year-old O’Keefe rose to fame with the wildly edited videos of ACORN employees appearing to give tax advice to a “pimp” and “prostitute,” granting Republicans the opportunity to pounce on an organization that encouraged the poor to participate in their democracy. He’s also gone after Planned Parenthood and teachers unions.
Now Republicans are dog-piling on National Public Radio, saying it has a liberal bias and that’s one reason to defund it. Two O’Keefe associates posed as members of a fictitious Muslim group and tried to goad NPR into taking a $5 million donation on the condition they don’t report it on tax forms. NPR didn’t bite, but the two got footage of Ronald Schiller, vice president for fundraising, seemingly calling Republicans — in “particular the Tea Party” — “seriously racist” and “fanatically involved in people's personal lives.” I say “seemingly” because the whole video gives reason to believe this spiel was Schiller trying to paraphrase the opinions of disgruntled Republicans he knows. You can’t trust the work of people who practice journalism the same way Chuck Berry created porn.
Still, NPR knew it was already on Republicans’ shit list, especially after the firing of commentator Juan Williams. Schiller resigned, and President and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) was also ousted. Several on-air personalities signed a harsh statement condemning Ronald Schiller’s comments.
NPR is not a laundering front for shady Arabs, but does it have a liberal bias and should it get federal funding?
The truth is NPR, symbol of blue-state snobbery that it is, does not have a liberal bias — it is Americans who have a conservative bias. NPR recruits worldly, hyper-educated journalists and usually has more correspondents abroad than any other American news organization. If seen from a global perspective, America’s culture of religiosity, aggressive foreign policy and giddiness to ignore social and environmental welfare for the sake of economic growth are all pretty weird for an industrialized Western nation. A truly objective news organization would treat our peculiar system with some detached skepticism. A 2005 UCLA study found that NPR’s “Morning Edition” had a (slight) liberal bias. But that study defined the political middle as the average voting record of a U.S. senator. Even Harry Reid is a hardcore capitalist Jesus nut when compared to the average Czech or Australian or Swede.
Does NPR need public funding? This was the subject of the other “big” sound bite from the Schiller tape. “It is very clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding,” he said. He didn’t say why NPR should ultimately shrug off the $90 million of its $800-million budget acquired from the federal government, but the hasty ousting of both Schillers give a good reason. To prove worthy of taxpayer funding, NPR goes to great pains to show itself as “unbiased.” That would be an excellent journalistic standard in usual circumstances, but for NPR it means placating Republican lawmakers who keep moving the “center” further to the right, calling President Barack Obama’s business-friendly practices “socialist” and insisting aspects of his health care plan Bob Dole proposed in 1996 are radically leftist. If it were a private company, NPR could say the Schillers were assets, Juan Williams was not and conservatives can suck its sedate, well-mannered balls.
Still, the proof is in the pudding as for the worthiness of the system that has developed NPR since 1970. Its shows are among the smartest, most informative, well-awarded news sources in the country. In the fickle world of corporate radio, something like “All Things Considered” would have been replaced by yahoos screaming over sound effects and crank-calling 7-11s before it could find an audience.
Overtly ideologically slanted news sources are coming dangerously close to surpassing traditional kinds. Be it one woman’s blog or one billionaire’s cable network, these outlets are often the opposite of NPR — simplistic, nationalistic and built with a disincentive to challenge their audience. It’s not certain how NPR should continue, but it is certain that it needs to in a world where James O’Keefe considers himself a journalist.