What James O'Keefe's Latest Video Means for NPR Funding

Updated 3/8/11 at 5:54 p.m.

Fresh off the heels of a GOP push to defund public broadcasting, NPR found itself in a bit of a compromising position Tuesday after guerilla videographers revealed one of its top executives making the GOP argument for defunding himself.

Released this morning, the video from conservative filmmaker and activist James O'Keefe shows a late February lunch meeting between two NPR fundraising executives and two guys posing as representatives of a potential donor group that's funded by the Muslim Brotherhood -- a scenario the actors reveal slowly over the course of the conversation.

In the video, Ron Schiller, the head of NPR's nonprofit organization -- and someone who last week announced he'd be joining the Aspen Institute come April -- disparaged the GOP and the tea party movement as the undercover videographers discussed donating up to $5 million to NPR in an effort to promote Muslim views.

"The current Republican Party, particularly the tea party, is fanatically involved in people's personal lives and very fundamental Christian--I wouldn't even call it Christian. It's this weird evangelical kind of move," Schiller said on the video.

He also said NPR would be better off without federal financing -- funding which Republicans have been trying to strip from the radio network for some time now.

Schiller's attacks on the GOP and the tea party are sure to spark more criticism that NPR slants left. NPR has weathered a barrage of such criticism since October, when it fired journalist Juan Williams for expressing personal sentiments on Muslims and air security as a Fox News contributor.

Since then, conservatives have rallied around the idea of de-funding NPR. The House passed a broad spending bill on Feb. 19 that would eliminate public-broadcasting funding for the rest of the fiscal year, but Senate Democrats have rejected it. Taxpayer dollars continue to flow to NPR and PBS, both subsidiaries of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), at last year's levels. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a stand-alone Senate bill last week to defund the CPB.

The new video is already causing a stir. Tea Party Patriots, the nation's largest tea party membership organization, e-mailed its supporters today about defunding NPR, in light of O'Keefe's expose.

"Mr. Schiller's latest comments provoke a larger question: how long will we as a nation be willing to tolerate the arrogance of the self-appointed ruling elite?," Jenny Beth Martin, TPP national coordinator, wrote to supporters.  "His unedited comments are indicative of the mentality of ruling elites who are threatened by the power of the Tea Party Patriots."

The issue of a media organization accepting Muslim Brotherhood cash -- the video's overt news play -- in the end may have little to do with the video's impact. O'Keefe's "citizen journalists" disclose their fake Muslim Brotherhood connections slowly and, at first, vaguely. NPR has said it did not accept any money.

But the video nonetheless could be a perfect rallying cry for the would-be NPR defunders, because it shows a top NPR executive articulating the fiscal-conservative case against NPR funding -- explaining that the network can survive, and indeed is better off, without federal monies -- the same case Republican lawmakers have made as they look to strip its federal appropriations.

"Frankly, it is clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding, and the challenge right now is that if we lost it altogether, we would have a lot of stations go dark," Schiller tells the two undercover videographers, who suggest that federal funding poses difficulties for NPR, at about 5:54 into the video.

Prodded to explain his reasons, Schiller says: "Well, I think our independence for one. Number two is that our job would be a lot easier if people weren't confused about, because we get federal funding a lot of Americans, a lot of philanthropists actually think we get most of our money from the federal government, even though NPR as you know gets one percent of its station economy, as a whole gets 10 percent ..."

That's almost exactly what Sen. DeMint argued last week, in announcing his defunding bill. "NPR boasts that it only gets 2 percent of its funding from taxpayers and PBS gets about 15 percent, so these programs should be able to find a way to stand on their own," read the press release from DeMint's office.

NPR does not receive any direct federal funding, but about two percent of its revenue comes from grants through CPB and other federal agencies, according to its website.

The leading House advocate for defunding, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), says Schiller's take on funding is the video's salient point. Lamborn introduced his own stand-alone bill to defund NPR last summer -- before the Juan Williams firing made it a hot topic.

"The fact that [Schiller throws] the racism around cavalierly is bothering to me," Lamborn told me over the phone today, presumably referencing Schiller's accusation that tea parties are racist, "but the biggest admission that I picked up on is that they could survive and actually be better off without federal funding, and actually that is true for a lot of reasons.

"They'd have more independence, Congress wouldn't be breathing down their necks, and they do have some quality products that the private market, the free market would be very eager to support."

Lamborn and his Senate allies, Coburn and DeMint, say they want to defund NPR to save money, not because of Juan Williams or any ideological slant. "It's not an essential government service. Maybe at one point 40 years ago when all you had were three major networks, and that was pretty much it, you could make a smart-bidder argument, but today there are so many media outlets available in so many formats that people thought inconceivable just a few years ago ... it's outlived the reason it was originally created," Lamborn said.

But political enmity accounts for some of the GOP NPR-defunding push, and Lanborn acknowledges that Schiller's comments on the GOP and the tea party could help move the needle in the funding discussion.

"It has that potential," Lamborn said. "Time will tell how viral this goes and whether or not it has that effect."

NPR, for its part, said it was "appalled" by Schiller's comments. Dana David Rehm, NPR's senior vice president of marketing, communications, and external relations, released this statement:

"The fraudulent organization represented in this video repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept.

"We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for.

"Mr. Schiller announced last week that he is leaving NPR for another job."

NPR announced Tuesday afternoon that Schiller had been placed on administrative leave.
It's unlikely that this video will result in the defunding of NPR. In the debate over a longer-term spending bill, Senate Democrats probably won't give in to House GOP demands that public broadcast funding be eliminated. When sides come to the bargaining table, this is a light chip that will be brushed aside as Republicans and Democrats try to narrow the $50 billion divide between their favored spending levels. And it certainly helps NPR that these comments were made

But the video hits all the right buttons in the defunding discussion. It resonates with ideological enmities by placing liberal politics at the scene of a fundraising discussion, serves up fodder for anyone who already suspects NPR wants to promote radical-Muslim, pro-Palestinian views, and, most importantly, normalizes the view that NPR would be fine without federal dollars.

*Full disclosure: The Atlantic enjoys a partnership with the Aspen Institute. Atlantic and Aspen co-host the annual Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.