I feel compelled to share my view of the events that led yesterday to the resignation of Vivian Schiller as CEO of NPR. I don’t know if they add up to a coherent response. Maybe not. In these notes I make no attempt to conceal my feelings on the matter, or to neuter myself politically.
1. As I said at PressThink four months ago: Wake up, public media people! You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed. They reside among culture warriors on the political right. That is a fact, and you are in the business of reporting facts.
2. Among them is James O’Keefe, the trickster who secretly taped NPR executive Ron Schiller ranting about the Tea Party and saying other incendiary things. Like his patron, Andrew Breitbart, who has said he’s “committed to the destruction of the old media guard” (adding, “it’s a very good business model…”) O’Keefe is a performance artist who profits from the public wreckage and institutional panic his media stunts seek to create.
3. To give in to that panic is to cooperate in your own demise. Which is exactly what the NPR board did by demanding that Schiller–a visionary leader who knew where NPR had to go in the digital age–resign immediately, and without a fight. This was a stupid and cowardly act, which will be justified as institutional realism, the price for one too many slip-ups. It is not realism. The decision to let Schiller go originates in a delusion, captured so well by Jon Stewart during the Juan Williams controversy when he told NPR: you brought a tote bag to a knife fight! The delusion is that you can keep doing that and somehow it will all work out in the end.
4. “Not only does this overreaction weaken NPR, it exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak,” writes Joel Mearas in CJR. I agree. But I would add that this weakness is not simply a matter of missing backbone. It is related to the inability to think politically about what it takes to secure a space for public broadcasting in this country. It takes more than friends in Congress, and a commitment to an impartial news service. Imagination is also required. There has to be something in between arid non-partisanship and politicizing public radio. Schiller couldn’t locate it, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.
5. Which part of committed to your destruction do you find difficult to understand, public media people? Did you see this little item in the New York Times yesterday?
NPR was not the only media organization duped by the Republican provocateur James O’Keefe. PBS confirmed Wednesday that like NPR, one of its executives attended a lunch with people who posed as members of the Muslim Education Action Center Trust, a fictional group.”
The plan was to take down both of you as the funding debate heated up in Congress. Clear? Now add to that this report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:
Ms. Berson added that she has heard of at least two instances recently in which employees at member stations have reported being approached by people who wanted to donate large sums of money and attempted to trap them into making negative comments about Republicans and conservatives. She said those staff members were wary of the calls and did not take the bait.
These people want to destroy you. You don’t get to decide whether you have political enemies or not. The enemies have that power. But you can decide how to respond to them. The default setting is a series of political defeats. It permits a trickster to take down your CEO.
6. And what did the NPR board “win” for itself by handing James O’Keefe the public wreckage that his culture war methods require to succeed? Vivian Schiller, commenting on her resignation: “I’m hopeful that my departure from NPR will have the intended effect of easing the defunding pressure on public broadcasting.”
Pat Butler, chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations, which lobbies for federal money, commenting on Vivian Schiller’s resignation: “As far as I can see, no one has changed his or her mind. The people who were for us are still for us, and the people who were against us are still against us.”
7. Meanwhile, the people committed to NPR’s destruction are greatly emboldened, its staff is demoralized, the board has shown that it can be rolled, and as far as I can tell no one with any platform within the public media system is willing to take on the people committed to its destruction. (If you know different, put a link in the comments and I will add it to this post.) See what I mean?
Here is what I still don’t get: how can public media develop a strategy or simply a coherent response to the culture war in which it is entangled if it cannot admit to itself or reason publicly with the fact that only one side in the culture war wants to destroy it… and the other one doesn’t? What is public media’s culture war strategy? Not to have one?
That isn’t working out so well.
9. I was talking about this on WGBH yesterday and the host, Emily Rooney, asked me what I would do. (Listen here.) Let me first say that I think this is a hard problem, and I am not at all confident that my prescription would work. I can only tell you what makes sense to me in the current situation:
* Abandon viewlessness as the official ideology at NPR. Replace it with pluralism. Meaning: NPR acknowledges that the people who work for it have a diverse mix of views and starting points. It is unreasonable to expect that these won’t factor into their work, but it is perfectly reasonable to hold everyone at NPR to basic standards: accuracy, fairness, intellectual honesty and transparency. That means you can click on the name of any editorial staffer and find out where they’re coming from.
* The primary response to charges of bias is thus shifted. It’s not the View from Nowhere anymore, but rather: “we are a diverse community of news professionals and there is no party line.” Not only is this more honest, not only would it force NPR to diversify its staff even more than the network already has, but it would eliminate the power of dirty tricks meant to expose the fact the people at NPR have political lives and opinions. You can’t expose what is already out there. Instead of defending itself against politicized complaints by striving for a publicly neutered staff, NPR would rely on doing editorial work that holds up under scrutiny. This is better.
* Renounce the two percent or so of its budget that it gets directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other federal agencies, eliminating that as an hot button issue. (NPR finances are explained here.)
* That leaves CPB’s support for local stations ($96 million in 2011) some of which flows to NPR through member dues. These stations are popular with voters; those voters are not a perfect cross-section of the electorate but they are a pretty broad-based one. Mediamark Research has studied the NPR audience: 37 percent identify as liberal, 28 percent as conservative, and 25 percent as middle of the road. (Link.) If it is determined that the $96 million cannot be raised from alternative sources, then the other option is a political strategy that puts Republicans on the spot in districts where local stations are popular and may be crippled if federal funding is eliminated. The 53 percent of the audience that is either conservative or middle of the road are the levers on those representatives. How far local stations can go in mobilizing supporters has yet to be tested, but it will take something like that to save the funding. Meanwhile, expecting your friends to fight for you when you won’t fight for yourself is just delusional.
* The advantages of going off the federal dollar entirely are obvious. It would eliminate the incentive to institutional timidity that is such a striking feature of NPR’s operating style whenever it is faced with politicized attacks or merely anticipates them. (Jason Linkins makes that case here.) Eliminate the federal subsidy to local stations or force a showdown on it and mobilize your supporters: Either way NPR has to emerge from its defensive crouch.
10. The NPR board authorized an investigation into the Juan Williams firing. It should launch another to find out how widespread this dirty tricks campaign has been and to expose those behind it. And if the tote-bagging board won’t do it, then investigative journalists at NPR should.
11. UPDATE, March 15. Maybe the NPR board should resign for forcing out Vivian Schiller without asking for this kind of review.