It was a rough week in a tough season for public radio, starting five months ago with the mishandled firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams, and ending with the resignation of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. Brooke and Bob look back. Way back.
BOB: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. What a week.
NEWS SOUND: Fox news alert a tea party group is now demanding that congress pull funding from NPR after a soon to be ex fund raising executive is caught on tape slamming conservatives and the tea party...
We know this is video from February 22nd apparently shot by two people posing as members of a fictitious Muslim organization that was trying to give NPR, National Public Radio executives, 5 million dollars. One of those NPR execs Ron Schiller was telling...
He was caught on tape trying to ingratiate himself to the donors by disparaging Jews the tea party and republicans. It was a sting set up by the controversial conservative film maker James O’Keefe better know for his videos of ACORN...
The timing could not be worse the House just voted to stop all funding of public broadcasting, 435 million dollars this year...
The other shoe has now dropped at NPR, moments ago NPR announcing its president Vivian Schiller has resigned.
BROOKE: It was a rough week in a tough season for NPR, starting five months ago with the mishandled firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams, and ending with the sting of NPR Fundraiser Ron Schiller saying the darndest things.
STING EXCERPT: The current republican party in particular the tea party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental christian and I wouldn’t even call it Christian it’s this weird evangelical...
BOB: Now a great yawning vacuum has opened at NPR. No chief news executive, with the earlier departure of Ellen Weiss; no top fundraiser, as Ron Schiller was already slated to leave; and now, no president.
JOYCE SLOCUM: The real role for me here is steady hand on the tiller.
BOB: Joyce Slocum, NPR’s General Council and Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs, was named interim president and CEO. She says that the political fallout from the sting will not change NPR’s journalism.
JOYCE SLOCUM: Knowing our newsroom and our journalists as I do, I think that they are going to continue to do as they have done and that is to take great care to ensure that their coverage is balanced, that they’re bringing a variety of voices to any given issue…
BOB: As a practical political matter, if you hired Roger Ailes himself and brought Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck in to host All Things Considered, do you think that you have the capacity to change anybody’s perceptions?
JOYCE SLOCUM: Well there are hardened critics who are never going to change their perception… but the really amazing thing that happens with a lot of people who have misperceptions about NPR…is all it takes to change that perception is to turn on their local member station and listen for a couple of hours.
BROOKE: Vivian Schiller’s considerable accomplishments, and mistakes, exposed the tripwires that inevitably hobble any intrepid NPR exec. Schiller pulled NPR into the digital age, expanding its web presence, developing mobile apps and exploiting social media. She took a network reeling from waves of cutbacks and put it on a secure financial footing. But she had never been a CEO, much less of a non-profit membership organization trapped in political crosshairs. She reacted clumsily to the precipitous firing of Juan Williams for a comment he made on Fox News. And she thanked the Obama Administration for its budgetary support which, some claim, framed public broadcasting as a Democratic cause.
BOB: As if it has even been framed as anything else. As we look back on the history of public broadcasting, what’s happening now seems inevitable. It’s happened over and over again. And in that context, the sting operation is just a sideshow to the main event, which is an argument over money, framed by some Republicans in Washington like this: Why should public broadcasting be defunded? Because a. Public broadcasting has a pervasive left-wing bias. b. The nation is in a financial crisis and has more pressing priorities. c. The government has no business funding media. d. All of the Above.
ERIC CANTOR: It should not the taxpayers responsibility to fund news organizations with a partisan point of view...
MIKE PENCE: I think it’s right that the CEO stepped down. It would be more right though if we seized this time of fiscal crisis to end public funding of NPR...
TOM COBURN: Where is it in the constitution that says the federal government is supposed to be funding competition for private networks with a public television or public radio in any way?
BOB: Those were Republican members of Congress Eric Cantor, Mike Pence and Senator Tom Coburn. For the record, we called 14 House and Senate Republicans for comment. They either did not respond or turned us down flat, including House Majority leader Eric Cantor, and Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, cosponsors of the bill to defund public broadcasting. Newt Gingrich has forthrightly argued to end federal funding. He also turned us down. But that’s okay, some things don’t change.
NEWT GINGRICH: One of the things we’re going to do this year I hope, is to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
BOB: That was Gingrich in 1994. In 1995, South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler sent a 16-page questionnaire to public broadcasters seeking information about the ethnic backgrounds, sexes and previous employment of NPR staffers. He told us this week that that eliminating federal support would make NPR more professional.
LARRY PRESSLER: For example when I was in the Senate, NPR said that I had asked about the religions of people there. We never asked about the religions and the New York Times wrote a retraction and a major article saying that. But it was so hard to get NPR to broadcast that. Recently, the error made on the death of Gabby Giffords, which, we don’t know, it might have just been a crank call that came in, but Ms. Schiller said our process has made mistakes. …And many people feel the error in that story was just the tip of the iceberg because frequently in the last few years NPR has just been wrong on many stories and just quietly corrects them later without any explanation.
BOB: Senator, could I just interrupt for a moment to ask you if you truly believe that this news organization, which has shelves and shelves and shelves full of Peabody Awards and Silver Batons and all of the highest honors in broadcast, whether you seriously believe that there is anything on the air on radio or television today that even comes close to competing with it. Are you really citing one or two fact errors as evidence that it is an unprofessional organization?
LARRY PRESSLER: Now if it does have all those Peabody Awards, which it does, that’s an argument that it can raise the money very easily. People will appreciate that, including myself. I will contribute. But it shouldn’t be getting federal funds.
BOB: So either NPR is bad because of public funding, or it’s so good it doesn’t need public funding.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Our nation wants more then just material wealth.
BROOKE: President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting act in 1967. Back then, 90 percent of the money went to public television.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Our nation wants more then just a chicken in every pot. We in America have an appetite for excellence too and while we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth. We want most of all to enrich man’s spirit and that is the purpose of this act.
JACK MITCHELL: I was the first employee of NPR and I had a title something like called "Associate".
BROOKE: Jack Mitchell was present at the creation. He says that in the mid-60s all the energy and talent in public broadcasting had migrated to television. Public radio consisted of about a hundred low power stations. In fact Johnson’s proposed act was initially called...
MITCHELL: The Public Television Act, to create a public television corporation. And these fellas in radio basically launched a guerilla action to get the words 'and radio' stuck in every time the word television appeared in the Public Television Act. And it was a long battle and a very quiet battle because most people didn't know this was going on.
BROOKE: Because the public radio system was so weak, NPR was created in February of 1970, got all the radio money, and created a program.
MITCHELL: The first regular scheduled program was All Things Considered, five days a week, 90 minutes, and 5 o'clock eastern time.
BROOKE: There wasn't a foreign desk, there wasn't a national desk.
MITCHELL: There were four reporters. And they weren't all that experienced…In the early days of public radio we were quite blatantly anti-Nixon, anti-war, pro-civil rights, this was the 1970s. And it came across in our broadcasting far more than it did in public television. But Nixon and his crew in the White House didn't know we existed. And so we just blindly went along and the White House went after public television for doing things that are far less blatant than we were doing.
BROOKE: Public broadcasting has at some point or another annoyed every administration since its inception. But despite the bi-partisan irritation its journalism engenders, republican legislators invariably lead the charge to kill the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which funnels federal support. But so far they’ve failed because a majority of voters including republican voters value public broadcasting. Still the fight continues, decade after decade.
RON SCHILLER: Frankly, it is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding.
BROOKE: So sayeth disgraced ex-NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller. NPR receives only about two percent of its income directly from the CPB. Federal funding mostly goes to stations that pay dues to NPR for programs. It provides roughly 10 percent of the public radio economy, but for small stations that percentage can be a lot higher. In rural communities it can run as high as 30 sometimes as high as 50 percent.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: I would de-couple public television and public radio and leave NPR on its own…. I spent a lot of time as president of NPR trying to reduce the share of the budget that was contributed by the government
BOB: Frank Mankiewicz was NPR’s President from 1977 to 1983 after serving as campaign director for George McGovern in 72 and press secretary to Sen. Robert Kennedy. A liberal to be sure but one who tried to make NPR less reliant on federal funding by launching projects that caused a huge budget gap, spawning a financial crisis in 1983. That’s when public funding was re-routed to the stations, and that’s when Jack Mitchell, NPR’s first employee, briefly returned.
JACK MITCHELL: At that point I really realized how different it was. It had become a very powerful, important, professional journalistic organization. And I realized that the whole mentality of the place had shifted from those kind of values that we had at the very beginning, which was "alternative, alternative, what can we do that's different?" to "how can we do what everybody else does but does it better?" So it was about 1983 that that really hit me, but it just continued on and on and on since.
BROOKE: Is firing the CEO for the foolish remarks of a fundraiser the act of a mature, confident news organization? Not according to Frank Mankiewicz.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: I don’t think this event should have been responsible for her firing. I think she was a very competent executive and was taking NPR in the right direction...
BROOKE: Jon Stewart called NPR’s Board a bunch of pussies.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: A bunch of what?
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Cookies?
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Oh pussies. Yeah that may be true.