It’s to NPR’s discredit that they took O’Keefe’s bait. Even the least cynical of scandal-watchers would struggle to believe that the NPR board is surprised by the sentiments Ron Schiller expressed. It’s not as if he came out in favor of infanticide, or expressed a lifelong admiration of Pol Pot. He offered the same lazy liberal nostrums common at Washington cocktail parties and presumably very familiar to NPR staffers at all levels. No, NPR was shocked only by the fact that these sentiments have been recorded for posterity and might negatively affect the way people think about the network.
But most people—and certainly those who’d care—already think NPR is liberal, and this ad hoc attempt to convince them otherwise will not convince them otherwise. Parting ways with Vivian Schiller is a dramatic face-saving exercise that has no chance of working. The congressmen who hate NPR and want it defunded into oblivion aren’t going to stop hating it. And NPR’s supporters are going to be merely more embarrassed about having to support an organization that seems all too ready to put its own neck in the guillotine whenever politically sensitive controversy sparks.
Whatever you might think of its individual employees, NPR is a legitimate, independent news organization that is consistently strong and tough in its reporting. Wouldn’t it have been better for them to embody those virtues in responding to O’Keefe’s latest piece of entrapment? Instead of “ousting” Vivian Schiller, they might have stood up for themselves and released a statement closer to the following: “Ron Schiller was a fundraiser who no longer works for us. He had nothing to do with our editorial decision making process. And, frankly, our editorial integrity speaks for itself. We’ve got reporters stationed all over the world, we’ve won all sorts of prizes, we’ve got an ombudsman who is committed to examining our editorial operations. If you think our reporting is tainted, or unreliable, that’s your opinion, and you’re free to express it. And to look for the evidence. But we will not be intimidated by the elaborate undercover hackwork of vindictive political point-scorers who are determined to see NPR fail.”
Poynter’s Steve Myers reports that when asked Wednesday morning if NPR was bowing to conservatives, Edwards responded that the broadcaster was not weakened by this move. But Edwards is wrong. Not only does this overreaction weaken NPR, it exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak—too concerned about its image to realize that “surrender” is not always the best option.
We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes at NPR. Perhaps there was other discontentment with Schiller that led to her firing. Or perhaps the board is truly terrified of losing any funding from the government or elsewhere. But today’s decision has not helped NPR’s cause. That it has now twice demonstrated a propensity to overreact and cower suggests NPR is neither firmly right nor left nor firmly in the middle, but blowing with whichever breeze may come. And that makes it an easy target for the heavy winds currently sweeping in from the right.
*Note: this originally read “fundraisers generally have zero interaction with the editorial side,” which is obviously not completely true upon a little reflection.