NPR's Toothless Defense Strategy

From left: James O'Keefe, Vivian Schiller, and Senator Jim DeMint. From left: Win Mcnamee / Getty Images; Phil Mc Carten / Reuters-Corbis; Tim Sloan / AFP-Getty Images

Steve Inskeep, a veteran National Public Radio correspondent, is calling from Cairo, having just visited a 23-year-old man with welts on his back who says the Egyptian Army tortured him.

“That, to me, is a real story,” he says. At a time when he is trying to get flak jackets to his colleagues in Libya, Inskeep has little patience for charges that NPR leans to the left. “What’s important to us is the work we do,” he says. “I actually get accused of being a conservative as often as I get accused of being a liberal.”

In Chicago, Ira Glass, who hosts This American Life, has used his own network’s airwaves to challenge his bosses for being timid. “Public radio is being hit with a barrage of criticism that it’s left-wing media–biased, reprehensible—and we’re doing nothing to stand up for our brand,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “They’re not responding like a multimedia organization that’s actually growing and superpopular.”

These exasperated reporters are speaking out against their embattled company in what amounts to a revolt in the ranks. NPR, reeling from an undercover sting that cost the network its chief executive and a chunk of its credibility, is facing the biggest threat in its 41-year history. The House just voted 228 to 192 to eliminate the federal funding that makes up 10 to 15 percent of public-radio budgets, an effort fueled by longstanding conservative complaints about NPR’s alleged leftist leanings. But with its future on the line, NPR’s decimated management has opted for quiet diplomacy rather than a full-throated defense of one of the few news operations that is actually expanding, reaching an impressive 27 million listeners a week.

Staffers flown in for a recent meeting in Washington groaned when executives said it would be too risky for them to aggressively defend NPR, and that perhaps they should get media training for Joyce Slocum, who took over on an interim basis after the firing of CEO Vivian Schiller.

“The credibility of NPR’s management has been damaged,” says Slocum, who had been its top lawyer. “But there’s been zero damage to the credibility of our journalists.” She says she instantly knew the episode “would create another firestorm around NPR”—months after the bungled firing of commentator Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News.

But Slocum offers no plan to right the broadcasting ship, other than “avoiding further management missteps” and being “very supportive” of the “magic” created by NPR’s talent. (Schiller declined to comment.)

In the video sting, conservative activist James O’Keefe lured NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian), into denouncing the Tea Party as “Islamophobic” and “seriously racist” at a Georgetown luncheon with two men posing as wealthy Muslim donors. The video was later found to be edited in misleading fashion compared with the raw footage provided by O’Keefe, but that hardly excused Schiller’s boneheaded remarks.

The journalists feel tarnished—and know who to blame. “Our problems don’t have much to do with what we do, but with the people who manage what we do,” says Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered. “I don’t think we’re antagonists to Fox the way MSNBC is. We certainly seem to disappoint a lot of doctrinaire liberals who expect different programming from us.”

Scott Simon, who hosts Weekend Edition Saturday, says that “every NPR journalist I know makes a real attempt to be fair and balanced. That’s why Schiller’s remarks were so repugnant to me … Ron Schiller seemed to be expressing an almost perfect caricature of a smug, elitist, toadying viewpoint.”

Indeed, O’Keefe’s video galvanized a conservative movement that has long resented NPR. The bookish-looking provocateur burst into public view posing as a pimp in a sting against ACORN that killed off the community group. But he also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor last year for using a false name to enter the Senate office of Democrat Mary Landrieu.

O’Keefe insists he is a “citizen journalist” engaging in “guerrilla theater,” and that “the institutions I’ve gone after are the institutions that investigative reporters have refused to investigate.” He defends his deceptions by noting that network reporters have also gone undercover, though the practice has fallen out of fashion.

Some critics just see NPR as “snooty,” as GOP Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia put it in a fundraising letter. And NPR reinforced its lefty image by accepting $1.8 million from liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, a leader of the drive to defund NPR in the House (along with Jim DeMint in the Senate), says the sting “definitely hurt their cause.” While he concedes that “there’s a lot of nonideological reporting on NPR,” Lamborn asks whether subsidizing radio is “a legitimate function of government. We have to raise the question, was this what the Founders envisioned?”

But California Democrat Henry Waxman says, “The legislation is driven by ideology, reflecting Republican anger at NPR. Primarily, they want to silence the people who give more objective news through public broadcasting.”

The GOP-controlled House originally tried wiping out the $430 million in federal funding for NPR and PBS but, after the O’Keefe sting, rushed an “emergency” bill to the floor that spared Big Bird and killed only NPR’s subsidy. Republicans insisted that this wasn’t about ideology, just belt-tightening, but kept invoking Ron Schiller having admitted on the tape that NPR would be better off without taxpayer dollars. Democrats called it an ugly attack; one, Anthony Weiner, displayed a poster of the brothers who host Car Talk, sarcastically congratulating the GOP for getting rid of Click and Clack.

Patrick Butler, who lobbies to preserve the funding as president of the Association of Public Television Stations, says he is “encouraged by the fact that our friends are still our friends.” Butler, a former head of NEWSWEEK Productions, adds that “people are not deserting me in droves as I might have feared.”

Still, why not give up the politically radioactive subsidy and boost fundraising? Slocum, the acting boss, says many rural stations are heavily dependent on government checks, and they buy programming from NPR. “There are stations that would go away without federal funding,” she says. “The system is very closely woven together and, once you start pulling, it all begins to unravel.”

While Butler warns that axing the funding “would immediately cost you 21,000 jobs,” that assumes every job at NPR, PBS, and their stations would vanish overnight—and reduces public broadcasting to a pork-laden jobs program. But with President Obama backing a funding increase, the Democratic-led Senate is unlikely to vote on the defunding measure—meaning NPR will hang on, at least for now.

Would only liberals mourn a collapse of NPR? In an NPR survey last year, 37 percent of listeners described themselves as liberal or very liberal, 25 percent as middle of the road, and 28 percent as conservative or very conservative—a split very much on Inskeep’s mind in Cairo.

“If you’re saying we’re a liberal propaganda front,” he says, “you’re insulting the intelligence of millions and millions of conservatives who listen to us every day. You are saying they’re stupid.”

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