What's Killing NPR

By Kurtz, Howard | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview
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What's Killing NPR


Kurtz, Howard, Newsweek


Byline: Howard Kurtz

It's not the conservative attacks. It's the network's complete lack of a strategy to save itself.

Steve Inskeep, A veteran National Public Radio correspondent, is calling from Cairo, having just visited a 23-year-old man with welts on his back who says the Egyptian Army tortured him.

"That, to me, is a real story," he says. At a time when he is trying to get flak jackets to his colleagues in Libya, Inskeep has little patience for charges that NPR leans to the left. "What's important to us is the work we do," he says. "I actually get accused of being a conservative as often as I get accused of being a liberal."

In Chicago, Ira Glass, who hosts This American Life, has used his own network's airwaves to challenge his bosses for being timid. "Public radio is being hit with a barrage of criticism that it's left-wing media-biased, reprehensible--and we're doing nothing to stand up for our brand," he tells NEWSWEEK. "They're not responding like a multimedia organization that's actually growing and superpopular."

These exasperated reporters are speaking out against their embattled company in what amounts to a revolt in the ranks. NPR, reeling from an undercover sting that cost the network its chief executive and a chunk of its credibility, is facing the biggest threat in its 41-year history. The House just voted 228 to 192 to eliminate the federal funding that makes up 10 to 15 percent of public-radio budgets, an effort fueled by longstanding conservative complaints about NPR's alleged leftist leanings. But with its future on the line, NPR's decimated management has opted for quiet diplomacy rather than a full-throated defense of one of the few news operations that is actually expanding, reaching an impressive 27 million listeners a week.

Staffers flown in for a recent meeting in Washington groaned when executives said it would be too risky for them to aggressively defend NPR, and that perhaps they should get media training for Joyce Slocum, who took over on an interim basis after the firing of CEO Vivian Schiller.

"The credibility of NPR's management has been damaged," says Slocum, who had been its top lawyer. "But there's been zero damage to the credibility of our journalists." She says she instantly knew the episode "would create another firestorm around NPR"--months after the bungled firing of commentator Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News.

But Slocum offers no plan to right the broadcasting ship, other than "avoiding further management missteps" and being "very supportive" of the "magic" created by NPR's talent. (Schiller declined to comment.)

In the video sting, conservative activist James O'Keefe lured NPR's top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian), into denouncing the Tea Party as "Islamophobic" and "seriously racist" at a Georgetown luncheon with two men posing as wealthy Muslim donors. The video was later found to be edited in misleading fashion compared with the raw footage provided by O'Keefe, but that hardly excused Schiller's boneheaded remarks.

The journalists feel tarnished--and know who to blame. "Our problems don't have much to do with what we do, but with the people who manage what we do," says Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered. "I don't think we're antagonists to Fox the way MSNBC is. We certainly seem to disappoint a lot of doctrinaire liberals who expect different programming from us."

Scott Simon, who hosts Weekend Edition Saturday, says that "every NPR journalist I know makes a real attempt to be fair and balanced. That's why Schiller's remarks were so repugnant to me -- Ron Schiller seemed to be expressing an almost perfect caricature of a smug, elitist, toadying viewpoint.

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