It’s also a willful ignorance of how basic human interactions work. Most folks, when stuck in a conversational setting with strangers—particularly powerful, check-dangling strangers with strong opinions—will choose the path of least conversational resistance. They’ll smile, and agree, and try to mirror their interlocutor’s feelings—in part because it is awkward to do otherwise, in part because doing otherwise might imperil their chances at bringing home a five million dollar check. If you’ve spent time as a human being, or even as a journalist, you know this. This is why the Buffalo Beast’s gotcha tape of Scott Walker didn’t really “prove” much else aside from the fact that Walker will be polite and agreeable when talking to a very rich and opinionated man who might one day stuff his pockets or contribute to future campaigns. And this is why, even though Ron Schiller said a bunch of stupid things about Tea Partiers and veered from the NPR line on government funding, his lunchtime comments don’t serve to invalidate the entire organization. There is no reason for intelligent people—at NPR and writing about them—to pretend otherwise, or to claim the kinds of things we say in transactional, often awkward social settings should be used as proof positive of institutional malevolence. Unless, of course, the goal is to gin up politically motivated outrage for a cause like defunding a public broadcaster.
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.