This week’s swift downfall of National Public Radio’s CEO and chief fundraiser must have left Congressional Republicans — who are making another run at eliminating federal subsidies for public broadcasting — feeling like they struck a real blow to one of the conservative movement’s favorite hobby horse targets, the “liberal media.”
For all that both conservatives and progressives have invested in creating institutions devoted to exposing bias in various media outlets — George Soros’ Media Matters on the left and Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center on the right — their reams of reports figured little in the discussion about NPR’s future. Indeed, it’s striking how little relevant empirical data has been mentioned in this debate, which has lately been fought on a battlefield littered with appeals to class warfare.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who launched one of the week’s biggest salvos with an oped in the Wall Street Journal, didn’t discuss the constitutionality of subsidies for public broadcasting, instead choosing to emphasize the six-figure salaries of its executives. DeMint’s subtle message: NPR is an organization run by champagne socialists. Later in NPR’s week of pain, hidden camera provocateur James O’Keefe finished them off by revealing that NPR’s chief fundraiser also relied on class warfare rhetoric — but in presumed privacy — by labeling all Tea Partiers racists.
NPR’s leadership wasn’t forced out because anyone definitively demonstrated, once and for all, that public radio programming is nothing but what Brent Bozell has called a “radical left-wing toy for the likes of George Soros.” Instead, it was the ultimate loser in a debate that revolved around the kind of hype generated by gossip web sites like Gawker. NPR’s former chief fundraiser should apologize, but it would be foolish to pretend that professional money men don’t often wink and nod at donors in order to make the sale. (If similar DC lunches aimed at “conservative” donors were all broadcast on YouTube, many fundraisers from right-leaning organizations would also be strung up in the gallows of the blogosphere for insensitive remarks.)
CEO Vivian Schiller probably didn’t deserve to go — certainly not for being competitively compensated, as Sen. DeMint would seem to imply — but she made a critical mistake in refusing to say what her fundraising deputy admitted in O’Keefe’s video: NPR is ultimately better off without federal funding, which has made the organization a convenient political football. Instead of staging an infomercial before the National Press Club days before her resignation, CEO Schiller might have negotiated a multiyear drawdown of federal subsidies, giving affiliate stations time to find alternative sources of funding. This would have offered a pragmatic way out of the impasse with Congressional Republicans; instead, Schiller got bogged down in the same old accusations of bias and elitism that go on year after year. Her successors may still have the opportunity to take the NPR debate out of DC’s Gawker-like swamp — but they must do more than deliver scripted mea culpas at the National Press Club.