They Brought a Tote Bag to a Knife Fight: The Resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller

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.

10 Mar 2011 12:25 pm 89 Comments

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.”

That’s what the board won. (Also see this and this.)

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?

8. I’m sorry to put it this way, but I tried to warn you. We had a good discussion about it at a public media camp last November.

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.


I admit, abashedly, when the great and departed Daniel Schorr would come on and inevitably talk about Watergate — again — I’d roll my eyes and ponder what I felt was the network’s obsession with events that, although I am now 40, happened before I was old enough to remember them.

There’s not just ideological bias; there’s generational bias.

America is a country that’s not just stratified by race and class, we’re also stratified by age: people tend to hang out with people of their own generation. Many readers response to that statement would probably be, “Well, of course.” But that’s not true in other countries that I’ve lived in, where intergenerational friendships and linkages were far more common.

NPR needs to decide that they’re not just going to grow old with the Boomers whose issues they largely reflect.

Michael V. says:

Joseph McCarthy was dead before I was born: Does that mean I shouldn’t be interested in the lessons we learned from him and his ilk? Should all of us not born before the Great Depression think that too is irrelevant?

I think BOTH periods offer far more to citizens than ought to be dismissed by the words “generational divide.” As for today, we won’t know for decades what lessons it is teaching us. If anything, public media under-emphasize the historical events and context from which the crises of today stem.

Dwight Bobson says:

You are correct to focus on history. But the issue here is not NPR per se. The wealthy have had the run of the country for most of its history. They have been on a rampage since the institution of the income tax, followed by the New Deal, followed by the Great Society. They invested heavily in front organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute. They plan was and is to get “their” money back for the government theft of their wealth. In the early 1970s they had plans written for domestic goals to control wealth called “Starve The Beast”, and for international goals for controlling the world’s resources called, “The New American Century’. The Culture Wars are merely one of their many distractions to keep the emotional charge in the fight and to sway Americans who tend to stay in the wading pool of critical thinking. To paraphrase, Ideologies are the opiate of the people. NPR is simply collateral damage in control of media by the wealthy.

Karmasoniq says:

As an avid NPR listener and 30something counterculture individual I am continually stunned by how modern an forward thinking npr programing is. I’m not sure what your listening to but from music to books to interviews NPR rides the edge with the best of them. A mention of history does not overshadow the breadth and insightfullness of NPRs social and news reporting

pattybee says:

As a listener to NPR for 30 years I can testify to the fact that the station’s news programs have changed greatly over the years, both in their political slant to an annoying but business-like neutrality and in the items it covers that are of little interest to boomers of whom I am one. I accept that life goes on and fashions change.

If I feel that NPR is no longer speaking to my generation, and you don’t think it is speaking to yours, then who the hell are they speaking to?

Shawn Dudley says:

I agree wholeheartedly about the generational bias. If you are younger than 55 and you work in public media, it is palpable. For decades, NPR has been dominated by creaky boomer attitudes and crippling group think. Let’s hope NPR can survive the current firestorm and continue on its innovation track without the forward-thinking Schiller – with or without continued public funding.

(That is, they may want to focus on conspiracies and fraud that are going on now — there are plenty — instead of thinking of that as something America “got over” in the 70’s, with the “good guys” winning).

Having just suffered through another interminable pledge week of fundraising, it is odd to say this, but the pitches that WNYC’s on-air talent make to appeal for support from us listeners are so much less compromised than NPR’s corporate efforts, as revealed by this surreptitious video.

Leaving aside the political sentiments the prankster managed to extract from Ben Schiller’s mouth, the negative image created by O’Keefe’s videotape was of an inside-the-Beltway fundraising culture of obsequious pandering that was indistinguishable from the clubbiness of K Street lobbyists and politicians’ pitches for campaign contributions.

NPR is discredited here by seeming to be part of the access-purchasing, revolving-door cronyism that gives “not-for-profit” and “public service” a bad name, making tax-exemption appear to be no more than a hidden conduit for federal subsidies that the Beltway establishment dispenses to its own.

Listen to Brooke Gladstone and Brian Lehrer this morning and you will hear a tone of exasperated contempt at WNYC for the ethical sloppiness of NPR’s corporate fundraising efforts.

Andrew – you make an important point about how commercialism has crept into public media – in part because the yearly appropriations process is so flawed and uncertain. This has not only resulted in the trends you note, but also obvious concern about serving a particular audience, attractive to particular underwriters.

International public media research has shown that better funded public media systems are freer to serve and represent a broader diversity of voices and viewpoints, and to report on difficult social, economic and political stories that don’t have “commercial” appeal. (see for example –

gregorylent says:

every npr story i read about on the internet (i never listen to it) sounds like npr is the usa version of pravda .. meaning, pro-government pc pov … am i wrong?

Benjamin says:

I would ask the qusetion, “in relation to what other reporting” or even more to your point, since you can recognize it, “what other propoganda?”

anonymous says:

Maybe you ought to turn off Fox “News” more often.

For support of that point of view, I recommend the vast, well researched archives of this site:

Jay – thanks for your analysis and for your call for the need to stop playing defense. It’s time for public media to stop being objective about its right to exist. They should at least try to channel the energy of the millions of Americans fighting to defend them.

As you point out, at the root of the system’s problems is the funding mechanism of congressional appropriations, which provides inadequate support and is unstable by nature. However, giving up federal funding isn’t the only solution.

Instead of cutting funding, we could instead establish a trust fund, seeded with a large endowment, that would free public broadcasting from yearly appropriations.

This was the original vision of the bi-partisan Carnegie Commission, whose report laid the groundwork for the legislation that established the Corporations for Public Broadcasting. But policy makers at the time chose to ignore this one key recommendation. A trust-based funding approach is the best way to ensure the system’s long-term viability, as well as its freedom from undue commercial and political pressures.

This is obviously a complicated proposition given our economy, but in our Action Plan for Public Media ( we outline and analyze a range of ways we could – within ten to twenty years – establish such a trust that will eventually enable the public media system to become nearly or completely self-sufficient. Once it is established and sufficiently endowed, it would allow public funding to eventually be reduced to zero.

This in no way means writing a blank check for public media. We should also enact an array of policy changes and reforms (also outlined in the paper above). In a recent study of public media in 14 other democratic nations, your colleague at NYU, Rod Benson, found that with adequate funding and strong firewalls, in every single case public media provided more and higher quality public affairs programming, more critical coverage of government and a greater diversity of genres and unique perspectives than their commercial counterparts. (

Josh you again make a number of excellent and articulate points while failing, along with virtually everyone involved in this discussion, to shed light on the core problem at U.S. public media, both at the national and station level: the governance of U.S. public media is not controlled by the public.

Examine NPR’s main web page concerning its own governance – It states the NPR board of directors consists of: ten NPR Member Station Managers “elected to the board by their fellow member stations”, the president of NPR, the chair of the NPR foundation, and, “selected by the board and confirmed by NPR member stations” – five “public” members.

Gale research says about 94% of Americans living in school districts elect their public school trustees. A preliminary look at the governance of the outlets the ten station trustees manage yields no evidence that any are governed by boards of directors that include trustees elected by the public.

And about the five “public” NPR trustees? Three are investment bankers, one is a renowned educator, the fifth a for-profit media executive.

Also Josh, a minor complaint: Some federal funding for public media comes from other departments and is not included in the general appropriation. Once a trust is established, smaller, separate appropriations (Dept. of Education, NEH etc) will be approved by Congress. Reducing federal funding to an absolute zero will therefore not be necessary or desirable.

Hi Scott,

While I did not get into governance issues in my comment above – the international study which Free Press funded and which I linked to in my comment does get into the issues you raise explicitly. One of the key findings of that study was that “public media are strongest when citizens feel that media are responsive to them rather than to politicians or advertisers (i.e., when they are truly “public”). Funding structures and oversight organizations that create a direct link between public media and the people foster citizen engagement, involvement and accountability.”

Free Press has also written extensively about the need to revisit and revise aspects of the governing structures related to public media in our reports here:

Kathleen Pavelko says:

WITF, a joint (TV and radio) public licensee serving the capital region of Pennsylvania, recently conducted a regional survey (4% plus or minus accuracy) which yielded this important data point:
56% of WITF users are self-described Republicans; 30% are self-described Democrats; 13% are Independents and 1% “don’t know.” This mirrors the region’s political makeup and demonstrates to me that public TV and radio as consumed in central PA isn’t perceived as biased because persons of all political views consume it regularly.

As Prof. Rosen points out, public media’s opponents are primarily DC-based politicians and those in the political chattering classes online and on-air—not local officials or citizens who depend on the programs and aren’t swayed by the constant haranguing of “liberal”, “liberal.”

But here’s the reality: public television and radio were designed based on a social and financial compact with states and the federal government. Public stations would provide commercial-free, high quality programs that respect the intelligence of adults and nurture the curiosity of children, and in return, the federal government would provide a modest level of support (about $1.35 per citizen) to make up for the commercial revenue that stations forgo. That compact appears to be breaking down, without adequate warning or business model alternatives.

Public stations have the world’s worst business model: we create and deliver expensive programs for free, and after the fact we ask people to pay for it. Only about 8-9% of radio listeners and TV viewers contribute to their stations (though in WITF’s case, 78% of the population watches or listens every month).

As for losing (or forswearing) federal dollars, stations such as WITF would be seriously damaged and diminished for a considerable period if that happened. Some stations in rural areas or perennially weak economic markets would fail. Many, many university stations would be sold–probably to religious broadcasters–because universities don’t want to put any $ into their broadcast outlets.

So what should stations do? First, what they’re doing now, which is to fight for federal funding. Second, they should be trying to negotiate a plan B in case continued funding doesn’t seem likely (a glide path to zero $, retaining proceeds from sale of spectrum, release from paying the gross revenue tax on ancillary and supplementary revenue, flexibility in the language permitted in sponsorship announcements, etc. etc.) Third, we need to educate our users—and this will take a while—that not a penny of their taxes is going to support public television and radio and that THEY are the only public in public media.

I’ll conclude this long post with an observation about Prof. Rosen’s preference for pluralism over the view from nowhere. I think it’s naïve to suggest that coming clean about a journalist’s background will reduce the attacks…the background info will merely provide a handy supply of ammunition for future attacks. (“See, I told you he was liberal. I told you he hates the military. I told you she isn’t a God-fearing Christian.”) And those who attack public broadcasters for political gain won’t stop if federal funding goes away, either—because the political gains will remain even when the funding is gone.

But the reason to disclose key items about a journalist’s background is the same simple transparency we ask of others, especially elected officials. It’s only fair. Of course, nothing that’s happening to public broadcasting right now is fair, is it?

Thanks for this very interesting observation.

I agree that moving to a pluralist philosophy would not stop the attacks. The attacks are actually about a shifting base within the Republican coalition and a struggle between establishment and movement conservatives, which have different political styles. The culture war style requires symbols of the elite to beat up on. NPR is one. But years ago it was the NEH and NEA.

Ms. Pavelko,

You make excellent and pertinent points that get at the weaknesses and myths about public broadcasting.

I was curious about this statement though:
“Public stations have the world’s worst business model: we create and deliver expensive programs for free, and after the fact we ask people to pay for it. Only about 8-9% of radio listeners and TV viewers contribute to their stations (though in WITF’s case, 78% of the population watches or listens every month).”

It seems the business model is similar to commercial stations, where content is paid for by advertisers after programming is produced and aired. Also, don’t you get underwriting and grants to add to membership revenue?

I live in Scranton, PA, in WVIA territory, and their operations have been hit hard with a total state funding reduction. It shows in the programming. There are fewer locally produced shows, no staff journalists other than some show hosts and radio dee-days, staff furloughs, and pay cuts. To save money, WVIA content, which reaches 22 counties, has morphed into more broad topics for mass appeal because the resources are not there for extensive original programming reflecting all pockets of the coverage area.

On a sidenote, I am part of a group launching an independent community radio station in Northeast Pennsylvania. On the one hand we will not be tied to expensive NPR programming, but we also are not eligible for all the CPB programming, journalism and innovation grants.

It will be interesting to see how these public broadcasting funding shifts and attitudes play out.

Jessica Durkin
Scranton, PA

[…] They Brought a Tote Bag to a Knife Fight: The Resignation of NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller. […]

Islander_84 says:

I could not agree more about NPR renouncing the 2% of their budget. I know one or two of the NPR Board members, they have discussed this item at the Board level – to what result I do not know, but, I know it has come up and it needs to be pressed and needs to be pressed NOW.

This could (possibly only temporarily) really switch the discussion of funding for local stations in the station’s favor.

As of right now NPR is possibly holding the fate of many stations in small rural areas in their hands right now all for the sake of 2% of their budget. Granted, their 2% is higher than most, but, they are going to be hurting BIG TIME if Senators abandon the case and let funding be eliminated for stations. There would go NPR’s 2% and rural stations around the country – smooth move, NPR (not).

I firmly believe if NPR renounces the 2% that turns the discussion around to Congressmen having to go on record as NOT funding stations in their home state instead of the current whipping boy NPR.

I do not believe this is the end of this system of excellent programming. It would be a big loss if NPR passed on this opportunity to reframe the public debate about funding pubcasting as funding local stations.

Push on !

Robert P says:

I second this idea (NPR voluntarily declining all CPB funding). NPR is the lightning rod these days, and it doesn’t even need the money apparently. If NPR removes itself from the fray, I think the anti-CPB campaign is deprived of its boogie man. And crucially, elected officials who may be wavering–who support their local stations, Big Bird, etc., but who can’t be seen as defending now-demonized NPR–will once again be able resist de-funding. I think that member stations and other public broadcasting supporters should be pushing this notion with all their might.

Julia Barton says:

Thank you for writing this, Jay. Since I don’t have a regular job in public media, I feel like I can say something. You won’t find many people in the system who will right now–this is a very unstable moment and people are afraid. Not really a state you want from a free press, but free press ain’t got so many jobs at the moment.

Vivian Schiller called NPR “America’s best-kept secret” and sought to bring it, and the entire pub radio system, into the spotlight to take a deserved bow. As someone who’s worked in public radio for more than a decade, I can’t tell you how refreshing this was. But this stance was and is not the M.O. at most stations or at NPR. Since the system was nearly killed by Congress in 1983, its survival tactic has been to lie low. The network has gotten infinitely more professional, and so have many member stations, but for the most part local stations hew tightly to mediocrity. Viv Schiller was challenging this, and I think this was one of the causes of tensions between her and the board.

I’ve frequently given talks in the former Soviet Union about our bizarre public media system. It takes an hour just to lay out how it works and how it got this way. Until recently, there’s been no decent text to help me explain it. This year, while visiting Moldova, I at least had the new book “This is NPR” to show professionals and students. It’s bold, clear, proud–people there wanted to know if NPR put out a book like that every year. I had to snort and explain this was the first book of its kind in 40 years. And even so, it’s full of mea culpas, as I think it should be.

I hope for the sake of everyone the system can pick itself up again and be emboldened by the great talent it has at both the national and local levels. Our country deserves the huge service of public broadcasting, something most developed countries enjoy in one form or another. But we somehow lost this debate in the 1930s and I feel like we’re losing it again. This is a depressing time, but maybe one of the things the system has to go through in order to come into its own.

I was appalled at what NPR became in 1983. It was like somebody threw a switch and suddenly the whole NPR ethos was to seem banal and unthreatening.

Julia Barton says:

Here’s NPR’s original mission statement, as written by Bill Siemering:

“National public radio will serve the individual; it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.”

Contrast with their mission statement now:

“The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public–one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and cultures. To accomplish our mission, we produce, acquire, and distribute programming that meets the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression; we represent our members in matters of their mutual interest; and we provide satellite interconnection for the entire public radio station.”

Sam Damon says:

What delusional bubble are you living in?? You lament the fact that the right hates NPR and is working for it’s defunding/destruction. And yet, NPR has consistently demonized the right for many years as “racist, gun-toting, nut jobs, etc.” What goes around comes around. As far as your prescription for fixing things, your #9 is naive at best. I would support limited public funding for NPR if they said they present a “diverse viewpoint” and actually lived up to that standard, but the fact is their “diversity” knows only one viewpoint – uber liberal.” Good luck trying to change that.

Direct from the culture war script! Primary sources are always appreciated. Thanks for contributing.

viewer/listener says:

written by someone that i can assure you has trouble sitting through more than 10 minutes of discussion on a single topic without two talking heads screaming at each other. if there’s no arguing no one must be making an argument, right?

Not the same bubble you’re in , apparently. I heard, on NPR, yesterday, a right wing critic of NPR, compare it to Fox, as in they’re both similarly off the charts ideologically, and no one challenged that. No one said the obvious, that Fox long ago gave up any semblance of journalism. NPR can’t attract the numbers of Republicans and conservatives it clearly does, and be anything close to Fox. Public media has indeed ceded the fight, with barely more than a whimper. And, let’s be clear: that guy, the one who got scammed, was NOT an NPR exec. He was a fund-raising consultant.

Funny how NPR can somehow “demonize the right” when they consistently seek out uninterrupted and unedited viewpoints from republican leaders over democrats nearly 3 to 1 for their news analysis.
But shout away, I guess.

Where do those figures come from? I have not seen such a study.

Jay, in a quick search I couldn’t find the 3-1 ratio either, but I came close: FAIR’s 2004 NPR study states “Looking at partisan sources – including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants – Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent).” and “Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15.” FAIR says its study “recorded every on-air source quoted in June 2003 on four National Public Radio news shows: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday… Altogether, the study counted 2,334 quoted sources, featured in 804 stories.”

Keith T. says:

A leader in an organization must at ALL times be careful with the words and statements they utter. They represent something larger than themselves. Sorry about their personal freedoms, the responsibility comes with the job. This incident is unacceptable at the leadership of NPR and the Board took the right action.

With that said I agree that NPR must take a much more aggressive position of strength. We need NPR.

As for public funding; So long as NPR takes public money they will not be able to escape the scrutiny of the microscope. A tough place to be. It forces them to seek to be as unbiased as possible. To respond when they miss the mark. Without it, NPR might easily fall to a bias that we all would respect much less.

John Doe says:

As a listener to public broadcasting, I can promise you that I will not give them a single dime of my own personal property until they reject every last cent of taxpayer subsidy. I listen to public broadcasting mainly to sharpen my own elbows.

They should stand entirely on their own. They will be just fine when they make this choice. It’s a terrible shame they are such peurile miscreants when it comes to just saying no to taxpayer funding.

I presume these are educated adults running the show, but O’Keefe’s evidence is that they are sychophantic beggars in suits.

NPR is a dinosaur. Might as well be Blockbuster. The market for information distribution is diverse and more importantly,individually chosen. Just like the networks and newspapers,NPR has been left in the dust heap of the technology bin.And the loss of control that these 3 entities had in content distribution is what drives you guys nuts 🙂

Actually, that’s the most troubling part of this story: that Vivian Schiller was moving public radio into areas that compete effectively with and contribute to non-legacy news sources.

If NPR is a dinosaur, it’s in the realm of apolitical thinking as noted here, but it’s unfair to not acknowledge the innovation in journalism practice that took place under Ms. Schiller.

Right on. “Committed to their own destruction” — it seems so, even to the point that one wonders if the board has not been infiltrated or otherwise compromised, or if THEY invited O’Keefe to do his shtick. How could they not know they would be playing into exactly what he desired by firing Vivian Schiller? I don’t think it’s naivete, unfortunately.

Anna Haynes says:

Dave Edwards, the board chairman, seems to be saying “the board decided…”, “the board thought…” a lot; is the vote breakdown public info, or – because it’s a personnel matter – can they keep it confidential?

Anna Haynes says:

> how widespread this dirty tricks campaign has been and to expose those behind it

What is the history of this tactic – how long has it been in use, in partisan politics &/or the culture wars?

Kevin Drum, The Age of the Political Sting – “We now officially live in the era of guerrilla activism. It started in the fall of 2009 with the infamous ACORN sting. … ACORN, Climategate, Planned Parenthood, and NPR. Well-timed sting operations are now the go-to tactic for conservatives trying to discredit programs that they and their funders dislike.”

“It started in the fall of 2009”?

I said in my post that you don’t see people with a public visibility at NPR speaking out about those who seek their destruction. But it’s worse than that. Here the show hosts get together to say they’re appalled by Ron Schiller.

I do not begrudge them that, and I understand why they felt the need to do it. But attempted entrapment of NPR, PBS and local stations by agents of the right wing? (As documented in this post.) The biggest names in public radio do not feel moved to put out a statement about that.

Does anyone see this as the “tell” that I do?

I am utterly maddened by this “deer in the headlights” response. Can it possibly be the case that these folks have failed to perceive the nature of the borgish crowd seeking their destruction? Do they presume that the love-vibe from their audiences will be all that’s needed to ward off this bloom of psychopathy? It’s just inexplicable and I yearn to line these folks up for a Stooge-slap even if I love them.

“The only thing that we got right
was the day we started to fight…”

CincyCapell says:

What’s the point of defending NPR when these weenies continually collapse at the slightest pressure from right wingers? They won’t defend themselves, and they’re so afraid of republicans that they walk on egg shells to avoid offending them, and it’s affected their reporting. NPR played cheerleader in the run up to Iraq, they also conspicuously refused to use the word ‘torture’ to describe the torture inflicted on American prisoners, and ordered by the highest ranks of the Bush administration. NPR’s reporting is also the very height of Villager Common Wisdom, it’s filled with inside the beltway wankers, and they ALWAYS get the opinion of some wanker from right wing think tanks, but seldom seek opinions from actual liberals (it’s always one extreme right wing opinion balanced by one center right opinion). NPR has also been infected by the plague of so-called “balanced” journalism, wherein they won’t call out the blatant lies of right wing media (they’re scared to death by them), but rather they put on two assholes and let them each uncritically spin their side of the story, and then let the listener decide who is right and who is lying. To h*ll with NPR.

Scott S. says:

I enjoyed reading Prof. Rosen’s analysis. But I think there is one aspect to the incidents lately at NPR that Rosen and others are missing: the complete incompetence of the executives in the area of human resources and professionalism

I shared many NPR-listeners’ concerns about having Juan Williams serving as a commentator on Fox, for reasons that are abundantly clear to all. But NPR management should have revisited the topic calmly and at a discussion table, over several days of negotiations and private conversation, not over the phone in the middle of the night. And NPR executives should refrain from making employment decisions on the fly and discussing these decisions in public. He was treated with complete disrespect and any other employee at other firm would have been justified in being as angry as Mr. Williams was if it had happened to them.

Second, what person in their right mind would share their personal political views with strangers seeking to make donations to NPR????!!! Of course, we all have our own political views. But we check those at the door when carrying out our jobs everyday. He was there to gauge this )fake) group’s interest in donating to NPR. Nothing more! It was completely inappropriate for him to share his own political viewpoints. We should only share these views when we are conducting our lives as private citizens. This was completely unprofessional what Schiller did, and I do not want such a cliche working for NPR.

In short, as much as NPR needs a public relations strategy and perhaps new business strategy, it also needs executives who know how to act professionally and with competence.

Anna Haynes says:

> what person in their right mind would share their personal political views with strangers seeking to make donations…

You’d be surprised what an agent provocateur can get you to say. The problem is that in a civil society we typically don’t expect duplicitous (non-financial) ill intent from apparently cordial people.

One take on Ron Schiller’s comments that I haven’t seen anyone explore so far is the notion that he was a short-timer. He wasn’t going to be sticking around much longer. He’d arranged to take over the Aspen Institute next month, and that’s something that you work out months in advance.

I suspect he may have been a little sloppier than normal with his comments because, hell… he was quitting soon anyway.

Of course, that’s just a guess.

The more important point is: Who Cares What Ron Schiller Says? The guy is a fundraiser employed by the NPR Foundation — an organization completely detached from the NPR News operation. He had no input or say on programming, journalism, ethics, staffing or anything else. His job was to go out and talk to folks about giving substantial gifts to the NPR mission, and if making a couple Tea Party cracks would put a donor at ease, so be it. Raising big bucks is a contact sport.

Naturally, in a culture war that doesn’t matter. But if NPR ever stood up and fought back, that would be one of the first points to make.

Susan Shepherd says:

Thanks John for pointing out that this guy was a fundraiser and has nothing to do with the editorial side of NPR. That’s kind of like doing a sting on the guy who does my taxes and attributing his political views to me. Why WHY didn’t NPR just say that?

Kathleen Pavelko says:

Scott S. makes a point that’s been overlooked–and a point that the NPR board should have emphasized: we have here a massive case of managerial malpractice.

Williams’ contract should have been allowed to expire quietly years ago. Instead,he was permitted to continue (by more than one CEO, it should be noted) to be misrepresented by Fox as its token liberal. Because his contract continued, the inevitable explosion happened and his departure was then massively botched by the news chief and by Ms. Schiller.

A senior fundraiser does not express his/her own opinions. It’s easy to note in the sting video that Mr. Schiller is talking constantly; he asks few questions about donors new to him and NPR; he fails to represent the organization’s mission and values (which the CEO and CDO are uniquely charged to do). Those of us who meet regularly with major donors are slack-jawed at his behavior.

Ms. Schiller is a gifted digital visionary. But she failed, repeatedly, in the most critical areas for a CEO: hiring a senior team, handling crisis, communicating calmly and with determination.

In short, these firings occurred because of incompetence and unprofessionalism.

A former NPR CEO and board chairman weighs in.

I could not figure out what he was saying about why the board acted the way it did. Other than: the critics are wrong.

Maybe some of you can do better.

Perhaps Dennis Haarsager’s most endearing quality is his ability to calm folks down and change the subject to one that’s less inflammatory and more productive. It’s why he was so successful at NPR, which can be a political viper pit at the executive and Board levels. He was the perfect choice for NPR following Ken Stern’s rocky departure.

But in the Haarsager mode, it also means that blame cannot be placed. Or that blame can be handed out to everyone. And quite frankly, the in grand scheme of things, he’s right. It’s just not a satisfying analysis because there’s no real conclusion and no way to fix things.

I love Dennis. He’s great. But I think he’s wrong here to suggest it’s simply a mismatch of trust between Board and CEO. This was the Board rolling over for right-wing culture warriors, to avoid Juan Williams II, and they didn’t care who paid the price.

I agree the Board and CEO must have trust. But what CEO could trust a Board that does stuff like this? Indeed, what donor can trust a Board like this?

Jay, I agree with everything you say here except the last item. Juan Williams should have been forced long before to drop Fox or resign. His comments about Muslims were so outlandish that they required he be fired immediately. And Williams’ bizarre pronouncements about NPR since his firing demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt how unprofessional and twisted he is. The only thing worth investigating is why Williams wasn’t fired much earlier…and why Mara Liasson wasn’t cashiered as well.

In any case, NPR had some courage back in the ’70s. Then as soon as the Reaganites started attacking them, they became embarrassingly feeble and all fake-balancy. It’s been decades since I could stomach listening to ATC. If they walk away from federal funding, maybe just maybe they’ll remember that they exist to serve the public by telling awkward truths, not to serve the interests of the GOP or to provide a veneer of respectability to radicals, loonies, the misinformed, the hyperpartisan, or the factually challenged.

NPR exists to tell the truth. The single most important truth dominating the country now is that a major political party has been highjacked by ideas and groups that once were beyond the fringe of respectability. NPR has spent two decades trying to avoid telling that truth. ‘Bout time it started to call a spade a spade.

anonymous says:

I don’t think that NPR is needed right now. And definitely should not be funded AT ALL. Now that mainstream media is no longer our only source of news, we have blogs, independent online news, many other sources….why should taxpayers give money to idealism they do not believe in. NPR is no longer needed, as is the case with alot of things the feds have stuck their noses in. STOP IT! Start funding things that you are supposed to, like Social Security, Roads, Bridges, the IRS, the military. Feds, you are not in charge of the whole American experience. Dont think that you can take MY MONEY to push your agendas.

The Tragically Flip says:

The picture you paint of media diversity is misleading at best. 5 very big companies own and control nearly everything that Americans read, see and hear as far as news goes. Newspapers are folding and blogs have not proven up to the task of replacing them as primary news gatherers. Talkingpointsmemo and Politico are at best silver linings to a very big dark cloud.

There’s lots of noise, but the signal input gets weaker all the time.

Public broadcasting provides a counterpoint to corporate media. A source that is not beholden to the biases inherent in maximizing shareholder value and responsible to a CEO and board who also sell missiles or run children’s theme parks.

It’s not so much to ask that one source exist that doesn’t feel so much need to drive ratings through celebrity trash and missing white girl stories, and can be held accountable through democratic processes.

Eh, I don’t care much that NPR has imploded and is collapsing in on itself. They’ve gotten a free ride, on the public dole, to expound on their extreme left propaganda for decade upon decade.

There’s nothing wrong with a broadcasting entity pushing a political, or other agenda, but it shouldn’t be bankrolled by taxpayers. Let NPR & PBS try the “Air America” route. But I expect they realize they will suffer the same fate as “Air America”: extinction. There just isn’t enough fringe leftists to keep far-left radio afloat in the real world.

Meanwhile, the NPR scandals just keep on coming.

According to a Washington Post article from March 24, 2009, NPR’s Morning Edition had as large an audience as the top two network TV morning shows combined. The totals may have slipped since then but those are highly competitive numbers. I think a closer examination will reveal that lefties have jobs that prevent them from faithfully tuning-in and calling into their favorite partisan programs day after day.

“Morning Edition had as large an audience as the top two network TV morning shows combined”

Even if that were so, NPR would not then be so terrified of getting pulled off from the taxpayers teat. They could easily go the “Air America” route and bask in the pure joy of the same attention as AA got.

“a closer examination will reveal that lefties have jobs”

That would make sense if the left were the ones opposed to things like welfare. But, rather, opposition to such government handouts is a conservative trait. People do not bite the hand that feeds them.

And while it is correct that some on the left have jobs, it must be remembered that most would be government-dependent jobs (a la NPR). We’re speaking of a class (liberals) who are dependent on taxpayers for their upkeep and very existence. But taxpayers believe the left could at least pick up the tab for their own radio entertainment. Not too much too ask.

The Tragically Flip says:

NPR doesn’t run on ads so ratings don’t translate into dollars. The point is that it is still popular because there is an audience for something calmer and deeper than what the corporate media provides.

It’s true that NPR might fold if it had to rely solely on advertising as a private market entity. I suspect you believe that any entity that cannot make a profit doing what it does is not worth doing, as that is a typical right wing belief to attribute virtue to whatever the market rewards. How you connect that to the “virtue” of pop starlets, teen vampire movies and enlargement contrivances sold on the internet I am not sure. Clearly the market rewards lots of crap, even by right wing moral standards. If so, is it so far a leap to believe that the market also lets some good things fail?

Anyway, the point for me is that journalism and public interest programming is a market failure. It needs public support like public parks, street lights and road maintenance do, as a necessary service that everyone benefits from but few would be willing to pay for directly.

No, the vast majority of people who have real jobs in America are center-left. The vast majority. The population centers are where most of the jobs exist in America and also where the balance tips in favor of the left. The more concentrated the population, the more jobs and the more liberals you will find. Almost every time. Even in Texas. But hey, since you never listen to NPR or bother to get your news from anything other than VRWC-approved sources, it makes sense that your premise would be entirely erroneous.

Alas, I do not know how to have a conversation with a poster who describes NPR programming as “far left propaganda” and sees no distinction between what Air America did and what, say, “All Things Considered” does. To me the distance between far left propaganda and what NPR programming does is about the same as the observable differences between Phoenix and Boston.

But I also recognize that this isn’t the point the poster is trying to make. The point the poster is trying to make is: we live in separate worlds, pal. Which is true.

The only broadcast “news” outlets that aren’t timid in their “news” coverage and response to controversy (or anything else, for that matter) fall on the right side of the political spectrum. Their brand of conservative evangelism is tailor-made for the commercial interests that represent the financial base of all commercial outlets. Public media can barely put out a product, let alone find the resources to stay in a knife fight all the way to the win. NPR probably doesn’t have enough staff to afford an imagination, let alone fight the three-headed hydra represented by the GOP, Newscorp and the Chamber of Commerce.

It’s highly unlikely that a news model financed by advertisers or taxpayers will be capable of rejuvenating American journalism. But it does seem possible to leverage economies of scale to deliver news far and wide at a low enough cost to attract enough subscribers to sustain a business without sponsors or patrons. A fully subscriber-financed model would turn the quality and credibility of the journalism itself into the foundation for financial success.

Right-wing media thrives on the knife fights that all other outlets fear. Until a truly honest broker can join the fight with the same relish, the ideologues will continue to bag their quarries with the same ease with which they rolled Shirley Sherrod, et al.

“Public media can barely put out a product, let alone find the resources to stay in a knife fight all the way to the win.”

Actually, a gun or a knife do not work as “battle metaphors” here. In this case, some dweeb kid brought an x-ray machine to the fight and the cancer that is PBS/NPR just naturally showed up in all it’s vile glory. We can be enraged at a doctor or CAT scan for showing a fatal malignant growth, but that doesn’t help the situation much.

The Tragically Flip says:

How did you respond to the news director (ie someone with direct editorial control) for Fox News spewing a bunch of nonsense about NPR being “nazis” and the like?

Was it only ok because you agree with Ailes? Or do you actually believe news should strive to be impartial and comments like this indicated a deep hatred of a large portion of the American people are inappropriate for a news director?

Roger Ailes is the President of Fox News. He called NPR executives left wing Nazis.

No, a known juvenile delinquent with a slingshot hit another passing car with a small rock and in response the person who maintains the street lamp resigned.

Jim Pharo says:

Wait, are you saying that tea partiers AREN’T racist fundamentalists?

Why oh why are we always ‘taking the bait.’ This is a classic right-wing tactic: when accused of anything, attack the accuser, attack the accuser’s barber’s son, etc. That way, the debate becomes all about the accusers motives, etc. (i.e., is NPR a far-left outfit? Do they have secret contempt for at least some people, etc.).

The question of whether or not the tea party has a lot more racists than, say, the Green party (of which one will hear NOTHING on NPR) is not even on the table.


Let’s assume, counter-factually, that NPR is a uniformly excellent and innovative news service. That doesn’t move the ball one yard toward justifying using the coercive power of government to take money from those who disagree with its on-air opinions. Nor does it make any difference whether it takes that booty directly, or through its affiliates.

And that’s what explains the animus toward NPR. You are, in fact, intellectually and mortally inferior to most of the rest of the country, and yet you pose as our betters, who are therefore justified in taking our money to support your stale, predictable, conventional, monochromatic left-wing point of view.

Just stop stealing out money, then the “war” on NPR will be over, and you can still say whatever you want on the air.

The Tragically Flip says:

Taxes are your debt to society for the benefits you draw from it. That’s why it is a crime not to pay them, you’re stealing from everyone else, trying to free ride the good life on their dime.

The price of civilization. Stop whining about “theft.”

If somebody uses taxes to build a road somewhere that I don’t use, then it’s theft. It just is, because I say so.

One of the great things about America is our longstanding support for those public goods for which the entire society benefits, but for which there may not be a commercial market. In addition, as a nation we have agreed that there are important services that all people should have access to. These ideals are why we all share in supporting public schools and public universities, public parks and public roads, as well as defense, health care, and more. Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry and since its founding, our country has subsidized news and journalism, in various ways, to ensure all citizens had access to vital news and information. To me, public broadcasting falls in this category.

I agree NPR should stop taking money directly from CPB. But I’m not so sure about the value of “pluralism.” You say: “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.”

One of the problems with “pluralism” (I’d call that the Fox News model) is that it substitutes “balance” for the kind of fairness and journalistic standards — “accuracy, fairness, intellectual honesty and transparency” — you and I value. (The New York Times model maybe?)

It’s not enough to simply have a mix of opinions and starting points if the reporting itself — from all sides — is polemics, disguised as news or analysis.

Only the View from Nowhere can prevent news from becoming polemics? I don’t agree. Fox = pluralism? I don’t agree.

Jay Arcey says:

First they came for ACORN, and I didn’t say anything because I don’t really get this community organizer thing anyway.

Then they came for Shirley Sherrod, and I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t really listening and it sounded like maybe she said something she shouldn’t have, didn’t she? I don’t know, I guess.

Then they came for Planned Parenthood, and really, I sympathize, but I have a teenage daughter and don’t really want to think about it.

Then they came for the unions, and I also really sympathize with them, too, but it all seems so unpleasant and noisy, and I’m not in a union anyway myself.

Then they came for NPR, and that got me! You can have Garrison Keillor when you pry him from my cold, dead hands . . .

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a TV screen blaring Fox News into a human face, forever.

Or perhaps we could face the fact that this is a concerted, radical factional effort to take down not only substantial, worthwhile institutions that just happen to favor or be favored by minorities, working people, and progressives, but also the ideas and principles that support them, and figure out how to fight back.

Beautifully written.

Agreed, well said. Fighting back is going to take money and lots of it. The post-CU v. FEC landscape is all about the Benjamins. Things like social media, hyper-local and crowdfunding are all important tools but nowhere near enough. If public broadcasting is a lost cause and commercial media is hopelessly compromised, we’ll need to re-think the subscription model to find the resources for the kind of reporting that can compete with the likes of Newscorp.

Kathleen Pavelko says:

Public broadcasting isn’t a lost cause in any sense.

First, the federal funding can be won–if Congressional supporters will make protecting it a priority–and not make public broadcasting funding a sacrificial lamb to prove their deficit bona fides.

Public broadcasting isn’t a lost cause even if federal funding is lost–but it would help if there is a glide path that allows stations to educate donors and to develop additional revenue sources.

Public broadcasting isn’t a lost even if federal funding is lost–but only if listeners and viewers see it as their responsibility to contribute. It’s too easy to say “Vermont Public Radio can easily make up that money” without writing a check yourself. And remember, there’s a 35-45% cost of fundraising that doesn’t apply to federal funding. So, for every dollar of federal money lost, $1.40 has to be raised.

Your points are all valid. But there are still several flaws in the public model, not least of which is the amount of air time that has to be given over to pledge drives. Spending a 15% of the air time begging for money doesn’t seem like a very productive use of the airwaves. The BBC is funded with a combination of streams, including TV license fees collected from households (which is their largest source of income). While the British public is looking at those fees with increasing wariness, the fact that the BBC is able to finance high quality global operations AND produce Doctor Who (among many high quality narrative programs), from fees collected from a population less than a sixth the size of the U.S. makes it clear that our public models don’t really work that well.

Kathleen Pavelko says:

If a BBC funding model were even remotely possible in the US, public broadcasters here would celebrate.

But it isn’t.

Pledge drives aren’t anywhere near 15% of broadcast time. For TV, the average station pledges for part of about 50 days per year, usually for four 12-minute breaks per night. That’s 2400 pledge minutes or 40 hours per year (out of 8760 hours in a year). Double that to include weekends and you’re still talking only a tiny fraction of airtime. And much, much less than the 16-22 minutes of advertising load in every commercial broadcast hour.

Pledge drives bring in new donors whose annual support can then be renewed off-air (via direct mail or online). Stations are hopeful that combinations of micro-payments, online giving, automatic giving via credit cards, etc. will reduce on-air drives.

The loss of federal funding would increase the pressure on stations to secure philanthropic support, including through pledge drives.

[Sorry for the long comment – good discussion.]

You’re right, I should have said “fundraising” and 15% is still too hyperbolic. (I think I let my anger at their naivete creep into my comment. I should’ve remembered what Bill Murray said in Groundhog Day – “don’t drive angry.”) But it’s still more than just pledge drives. Nearly every program on PBS now begins with a series of thank yous that look an awful lot like a standard commercial break, minus the kids fruit snacks. And funding is only part of the problem.

There are two radically different dynamics at work here. The first one is the one we keep talking about when punks like O’Keefe spook the liberals — the political drama that is engendered by simply being the news in America these days. Led by Fox News and conservative radio sirens, a withering attack of epic proportions can be leveled against even the most innocuous of news reports on the most obscure of outlets. Dipping a toe into any form of reporting in this climate can instantly become an invitation to a landslide of vitriolic accusations and calls for mass firings, etc, etc. Could be a puff piece about Muppets and some political operative will spot an advantage, fire off a talking point and next thing you know three cable news networks are carping over the manufactured outrage of the day. NPR and PBS have demonstrated that they are too institutionally atrophied and culturally isolated to notice.

The second dynamic is Sesame Street, Nova and Arthur. PBS is awesome for kids and learning and only the most politically deranged believe otherwise. So when it comes to financing, there’s a constant tug of war between what is perceived as either a partisan or simply boring and useless news component, and trustworthy and educational programming that is almost universally adored (if not universally viewed). I would wager dollars to doughnuts that removing the news requirement from public broadcasting would end the debate for 80% of the country. I’m not saying that would be a good idea, just that it would separate the wheat from the chaff in a lot of minds in the country.

I know the BBC model isn’t politically possible in America at this juncture. But it’s not something I want to give up on for the future. I believe America, when not being run by robber barons, is uniquely positioned to afford robust public programming that can be a constructive influence on the entire planet. But in the meantime, I’d rather try to bypass the entire system and build a better mousetrap.

A global subscription service that is based on transparency, open to scrutiny and conversant with the backchannel would place credibility above popularity in its business model. A business model that actually relies on good reporting to survive is insulated from the public financing fight and serves as the perfect counterbalance to commercialism. In a survey with a laughably small sample size but a broad cross-section of viewing habits, 75% of respondents would pay a nominal fee for a such a service. It’s possible and it’s time has come. If you know anyone with a couple billion dollars lying around, drop me a line. 😉

Kathleen Pavelko says:

Good points, Journowatch. I wouldn’t want to give up on the possibility of a better funding model (trust fund or license fee, say), and nor would I want to stop offering news and public affairs programming just to stop the battering. [By the way, Nixon proposed just that, and Congress and the public broadcasting community refused.] Even if public TV were limited to Sesame Street and NOVA, the culture warriors would still conjure up gay muppets and biased programs about evolution.

The subscriber model you suggest–a small fee, but broadly imposed–addresses the fundamental flaw in public media funding in this country. Our funding model should be more like Consumer Reports (quality info, but you pay for it) and less like Field of Dreams (provide it and they will pay for it).

This is a really rich discussion – I don’t know that we’d want to entirely copy the British model… One of the biggest strengths of public broadcasting in America is its radically decentralized nature. It is one of the few places left on broadcast that is telling local stories, debating local issues, promoting local music and arts, etc.. (This decentralization is also perhaps one of its great weaknesses, but that’s for another post…).

However, the trust fund model is not that unrealistic. Last year we (Free Press) did the math and proposed a number of methods to raise the money for a trust fund of this sort. The report is here: (more on this in my earlier comment above).

However, also of interest is some of the work being done by Ellen Goodman who has proposed a “Networked Structure” for public media.

Very detailed and useful analysis. It confirms all of our worst fears, of course. I haven’t made it all the way through yet but so far it exactly agrees with my independent research to this point. As Kathleen rightly noted, even removing the news component wouldn’t satiate the culture warriors — I’m really at a loss to discover what kind of world those people think they’re trying to usher in. Anyhoo, every piece of analysis I read on the subject keeps pushing me in the same direction — subscriber model on a massive enough scale to make it affordable to 80% of the planet. I’ve been working out the details on such a service for many months now. It’s doable. It would cost about as much to build as a brand new nuclear reactor — so there’s that. 😉

Long time/first time

I have just a couple points to bring up.

I appreciate the View From Nowhere problem, and I see how a pluralistic approach is a clarifying response to the problem of a nonexistent objectivity, but in practice I imagine a future in which one cannot listen to the news on the radio without a wallet size guide to commentators (and reporters, even) telling me whose ideological prejudices I need to filter out to get at a fair understanding of actuality. It seems to me that officially sanctioned cant in reporting puts a burden of translation on the listener that may be too involved for civilians in day to day life. Those who are aware of the necessity to do so, I point out. Perhaps there is an implied distinction between commentary and hard reporting, but if so I am missing it.

Don’t we miss the value and responsibility of editorial oversight by opening up the broadcast or publication to a plural approach? I (perhaps naively) assume the editor in chief is responsible for keeping the news to their standard for accuracy and fairness. Could we imagine an approach where we need only keep track of the institutional editorial priority, and not get lost in the weeds trying to keep track of which reporters we trust?

I suggest there might be a different axis to look at the right’s mistrust of NPR. I maintain that NPR is, on the whole, at cross-purposes with a social conservative listener because it is gay-friendly, urbane, and interested in new, edgy culture. There are vanishingly few passing references to faith, God, and Jesus that are ubiquitous in the daily speech and thoughts of evangelical and born again christians. I will posit that there might be a degree of intrinsic skepticism toward government and authority which is against a right-leaning listener’s tastes (although I myself am unimpressed with their efforts on this front). Plus the funding model is (by reputation if not in whole or even substantial part) is based on taxpayer funding for an arguably non-essential function of government.

Given the above, aren’t the folks on the right likely to mistrust and dislike NPR before any question of editorial bias need be considered? Correcting the question of the View from Nowhere does not address the cultural mismatch I perceive.

Communication is an essential role of government. Volunteer fire departments around the country use an extremely invasive form of communication when they need to call their volunteers to an emergency — the fire siren. The civil alert system and the emergency broadcast system are forms of communication the government must have access to in order to communicate important, time-sensitive messages to the citizenry. In a dictatorship, you wouldn’t notice the difference between state TV and everything else, because you wouldn’t see anything else. In a democracy, we like to decentralize the levers of power and communication, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still an essential role of government. And since the government is, ostensibly, of, by and for the people, all it takes is a majority to decide that public broadcasting is a worthy expense and viola, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

And let there be no mistake, many of the same people who criticize spending tax dollars on public broadcasting would all too happily create a single party-run TV channel, a la Nile TV, to pump out ideological propaganda in support of the ruling elite all day, every day. Oh wait, they already have one of those.

Thanks. There is a lot to think about in your comment.

Thanks for the interesting topics, and for the feedback.

There actually new information that the audio most touted as damaging to Ron Schiller doesn’t say what you think it says.

James O’Keefe may have gotten some damaging statements — *may* depending on who you are — but the perpetrators also felt the need to “sweeten” the statements. Had they played the original statements AS THEY WERE SAID, I’m not sure the conversation would have initially been looked at as bad as it was.

But that wasn’t the point. What O’Keefe and his crew figured out is the first 24-48 hours of his scoops are all that matters. What I don’t understand is why NPR’s board, felt the need to react withn 48 hours when O’Keefe’s videos haven’t always been what they are reported to be.

Right. O’Keefe’s videos have never been what they purport to be. And it’s inexcusable for media professionals to be so easily duped. A fictional entity with no paper trail or references? Totally inexcusable. I agree with Jay that the resignation was wrong on the merits of this case, but the missteps at NPR have been politically naive and professionally debilitating for years now. And I think this connects to the “voice from nowhere” problem, which assumes a certain level of naivete on the part of the viewer, and, apparently, the reporters and editorial staff as well. Making policy on the assumption of innocence just lowers your guard, and communicating only to the lowest common denominator just ticks everyone off, both the educated and the ignorant. (The obvious retort here is Fox News but they use coded language that only the faithful understand intuitively. So they aren’t actually playing to the lowest common denominator, they’re playing to the most conservative common denominator, and that makes their viewers feel like “insiders” and engenders their loyalty.)

I know this is focused on public broadcasting, but the dynamic is the same on commercial outlets. I lost track of the number of times the definition of a tsunami was recounted on CNN yesterday with full motion graphics and breathless descriptions of nature’s awesome power. I swear, I’m waiting for the day CNN does a special on the several methods of shoe-tying and the merits of each, with full-motion graphics, tips from the experts, and, of course, the dissenting opinion from the velcro industry. Several other outlets will then dutifully hold 30-minute roundtables on the relevance of CNN’s foray into domestic life. Howard Kurtz will try to stay above the fray by looking at both sides and drawing only one conclusion — that having a weekly show on CNN is pretty cool.

Hey, if it walks like news and quacks like news, it must be news.

I’m not so sure that I categorically deplore dirty tricks. One of the finest pieces of journalism in Chicago over the past 50 years was the Sun-Times’ Mirage series, in which they set up a functioning bar to see how many city officials would come in to shake down the business.

That was a dirty trick. But the deception was upward (aimed at powerful city officials) rather than downward (ordinary Joes who walked in off the street were actually served drinks at a reasonable price). Journalists don’t do that sort of thing any more, but they should. They should be infiltrating corporations and banks, tracking lobbyists on Capitol Hill and using whatever deceptive means they can get away with to expose malfeasance.

If NPR had been systematically exposing the right-wing, billionaire-driven campaign to gut the middle class over the past 30 years or so, using whatever undercover or deceptive means they found to be effective, this O’Keefe stunt wouldn’t have registered a blip on the scandal meter.

Instead, we have one side willing to deceive and get big results while the other side flails.

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 fact