National Public Radio found itself swept up in a perfect storm of criticism and static Tuesday after an undercover videotape captured a top executive condemning tea party supporters as “seriously racist” and suggesting the nonprofit network would be better off without its federal taxpayer subsidies.
Conservative muckraker and underground videographer James O’Keefe and two costumed actors posing as potential Muslim donors managed to document outgoing NPR development executive Ron Schiller vilifying grass-roots conservatives and questioning NPR’s need for millions of federal dollars, all over lunch at a tony Georgetown restaurant.
“The tea party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian — I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move,” Mr. Schiller said to his convincing lunchmates, who were posing as members of the Muslim Education Action Center, a fictitious interest group with a convincing fake website.
“Tea party people aren’t just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean, basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people,” the executive continued.
NPR distanced itself from the comments and from Mr. Schiller, who resigned from NPR a week ago to take a post at another Washington nonprofit, but reaction to the tape, which the 26-year-old Mr. O’Keefe posted online Tuesday, was swift.
“At a time when our government borrows 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we must find ways to cut spending and live within our means,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“This video clearly highlights the fact that public broadcasting doesn’t need taxpayer funding to thrive, and I hope that admission will lead to a bipartisan consensus to end these unnecessary federal subsidies,” the Virginia Republican said.
“Remove NPR from the federal budget and be done with it. … It’s time to push Big Bird out of the nest so he can fly on his own,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, who has led efforts to cut NPR’s funding.
The tone captured on the 11-minute edited tape illuminates a persistent image problem for the Washington-based network.
“NPR hates Middle America, plain and simple. The utterances from NPR officials underline that these taxpayer-funded bureaucrats loathe most of the taxpayers who feather their comfortable nest,” said Media Research Center President Brent Bozell.
“Their contempt for ‘scary’ middle Americans belies their ridiculous claims of concern for rural stations and their absurd declaration that somehow NPR is the epitome of fairness and balance,” Mr. Bozell said.
In a scene straight from a B-grade spy movie, the actors pretended to offer a sizable donation to Mr. Schiller and Betsy Liley, NPR’s current director of institutional giving, who was also at the meeting.
During the two-hour conversation, Mr. Schiller mocked skeptics of global warming and chuckled over a comment that NPR should be known as “National Palestinian Radio.”
He also assured the two actors that NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.”
Mr. Schiller recently departed NPR to become arts program director at the nonpartisan Aspen Institute.
“Schiller embraces and lives the values that we share as a community,” said the group’s president, Walter Isaacson, when announcing the hire last week. “I am very pleased that he has agreed to join us to help us build a strong and vibrant arts program.”
Tea partyers joined a call to Congress to stop NPR’s federal funding.
“Mr. Schiller himself candidly admits in the video that NPR doesn’t need federal funding, and welcomes the opportunity to slant their reporting without the oversight of the taxpayer,” said Mark Meckler, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group for the movement that claims some 15 million members.
“Let’s take his advice and pass legislation that would defund the clearly biased news organization that is out of touch with Americans across the country,” Mr. Meckler added.
In the aftermath of the sting, NPR management immediately scrambled to stay transparent with the public, tracking the course of their own story in the press and dutifully supplying links to the coverage and the video.
By afternoon, the broadcaster had switched to crisis management.
“The fraudulent organization represented in this video repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept. We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for,” said NPR Marketing Vice President Dana Davis Rehm. “Mr. Schiller announced last week that he is leaving NPR for another job.”
Meanwhile, the events cap a particularly trying period for NPR.
A report in The Washington Times on Monday found that NPR and PBS stations that ask their audiences to contact Congress to protest Republicans’ proposed spending cuts may violate laws preventing nonprofits or government-funded groups from lobbying.
The undercover video was released less than 24 hours after NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller — no relation to the former executive — appeared at the National Press Club to straighten out the broadcaster’s public image and take questions from journalists about NPR funding, the controversial termination of news analyst Juan Williams’ contract and other issues.
She dismissed charges of liberal bias at NPR as a “perception issue,” claiming the broadcaster was “red state and blue state.”
Mr. O’Keefe, no stranger to extreme and sometimes questionable tactics, is the same rogue journalist who brought the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to its knees in 2009.
With costumed fellow activist Hannah Giles and a hidden camera, Mr. O’Keefe captured employees of the federally funded voting rights group giving Mr. O’Keefe, posing as a pimp, advice on hiding prostitution activities. ACORN filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidation in late 2010.