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NPR Tries To Shuck Off 'Schillergate'

Ambush video puts network in a bad light at a bad time

Conservatives now have a poster boy for their campaign to federally defund National Public Radio. His name is Ron Schiller, who’s been a top fundraiser for the network. He has the same last name as the woman who was forced to resign as NPR president due to Ron’s careless comments, though their only relation is a shared tone-deafness to the politics they need to navigate.

In case you missed the story, NPR president Vivian Schiller was asked to resign after a team of conservative scoundrels secretly videotaped a meeting that involved Ron Schiller and another NPR executive. They were meeting with two men, who posed as Muslim activists, who said they wanted to give NPR a $5 million donation.

Watch the video. I did, and I will say that Ron Schiller embodied every stereotype that Republicans and conservatives hold for NPR. He was the public radio version of the crazy aunt you keep locked away in hopes she won’t insult the neighbors.


Ron was liberal and snobbish. He was contemptuous of the less-educated classes. He bemoaned the “anti-intellectual” movement. He lamented the fact that misguided, “uneducated” people make up such a large part of the voting public. He called Tea-Party Republicans “gun-toting Middle-America” racists.

When news of the video broke, members of the NPR Board of Directors fell over themselves trying to distance the network from what Schiller said. Board Chairman Dave Edwards was quoted as saying Ron Schiller’s comments were “so opposite” to what NPR stands for. “They bothered me to my core,” Edwards said.

So what does Vivian Schiller have to do with this, and why was she sacked? Aside from being the boss with whom the buck stops, she was at the center of NPR’s other big political debacle, the firing of political analyst Juan Williams. Williams was fired for saying Muslims on airplanes scare him. Afterwards Schiller suggested (publically) he should visit a psychiatrist to allay his fears.

Williams claims he’s not crazy.

I’ve been a part of the public radio community for a long time and there have been many times when federal funding has been threatened and NPR boosters have panicked and circled the wagons. I remember the 1990s when the Contract with America became a contract taken out on public broadcasting. In the early 1980s Congress cut half of the direct funding to the network.


Public radio survived those times and it will survive this. But Ron Schiller’s remarks couldn’t have come at a worse time. The firing of Williams may have been a cock-up, but Schiller’s comments are much more serious, and they have greater potential to damage NPR’s funding and reputation.

In the video, Schiller gave additional ammo to Republican NPR haters by saying the network would be better off if it had no federal funding at all. On this point, he might be right. But it was incredibly reckless for someone like him to speak that version of the truth in a Georgetown restaurant in front of two men he didn’t know and shouldn’t have trusted.

Besides, Ron Schiller’s opinion about federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting shows a big bias toward big-market stations. KPBS wouldn’t fold if government funding went away. But stations in lightly-populated states in the middle of the country? They are a different story. One of the great ironies of American politics is that rural states, that are most likely to elect Republicans, are also the most dependent on government funding.

National Public Radio has been a positive force in journalism. I know it will continue and we all hope the political pressure won’t compromise its journalistic values. But if the network has to thrive in the culture of Washington, it must to be led by people who know how to play that game.

And I think all people who work for or work with NPR, me included, need to occasionally look in the mirror and make sure they don’t see Ron Schiller looking back at them.