Punk’d Exec No Reason to Defund NPR?


As a senior host for NPR’s “All Things Considered” from 1989-1991, I was one of the first Asian Americans to regularly anchor a national news program when I co-hosted the weekends with Lynn Neary.

Some of my favorite memories involve the handwritten and very personal notes I’d receive from listeners who lived in places I never knew existed. They hailed from small towns in states like Kansas, Idaho, and Georgia, and they all wanted to correct my grammar or to criticize my use of interview subjects’ first names. That, I was told, was being “overly familiar.” A tad “chummy,” another said. Then I got a letter from a coastal town in Oregon penned by someone I was indeed familiar with-a long lost cousin-who practically drove off a cliff when she heard me on the radio.

That is the essential beauty of public radio. No monolithic 3-letter liberal juggernaut, public radio is a string of small, mostly struggling stations in America whose main goal is to connect the dots that rarely get connected.

In the age of the world-wide-web, the intimacy of radio connectivity may seem a tad passe, especially when the internet can be accessed from practically anywhere.

But there’s something so fundamental about radio, just as there is about truth itself.

That makes it so ironic that a stupid prank based on a lie is now the biggest threat to the continued funding of America’s small public radio stations.

The stupid prank in question was concocted by conservative James O’Keefe, who fancies himself the right-wing’s Ashton Kutcher (of “Punk’d” fame). Only instead of movie stars, O’Keefe punks institutions like ACORN and Planned Parenthood, and passes it off as journalism. It’s hardly a noble thing unless you like kicking the underdog. This time, O’Keefe surreptitiously videotaped NPR fundraising exec Ron Schiller meeting with a group that wanted to donate millions of dollars.

The NPR exec was real. So was his pandering for dollars. But the group, purported to be the Muslim Education Action Center Trust, was fake. So were its representatives.

Such lies are not accepted in journalistic practice unless there’s a truly compelling reason. For example, if there’s no other way to get at the truth, you might justify going undercover. But that’s a rare case. The Watergate investigation wasn’t built on lies. A Deep Throat or an inside source is preferable to a masquerade.

You might justify lying in a story if in the process you document someone committing an illegal act on camera. This, however, is more typical of a police or law enforcement sting. And even there, I have my doubts as to its fairness. When a cop poses as a prostitute and a horny john is created, where’s the crime if there was never a real prostitute in the first place? Is one guilty of soliciting a police officer? Better to up the ante. If you’re trying to catch a drug dealer or a mayor smoking crack (Marion Barry, Vista Hotel 1990), or expose bribery or racketeering (Abscam 1980), then maybe fakery can be useful. But then what about entrapment?

If O’Keefe were an ethical journalist, he simply had to ask Schiller for an interview on how he would approach Muslim donors. Forget the elaborate subterfuge, if the objective is fairness and truth.

That would be journalistic.

Of course, O’Keefe would find himself with a different kind of story with a less than candid Schiller. Bland isn’t truthful enough for the game O’Keefe’s playing. He’s not into “gotcha” journalism. He’s just into “gotcha.” O’Keefe’s into creating a political hit piece that’s not even a fair representation of the whole conversation Schiller had with the fake Muslims.

Apparently, even some conservatives are questioning O’Keefe. The website, The Blaze, (funded by talk show host Glenn Beck), analyzed the raw footage of Schiller’s meeting and found O’Keefe’s final edit to be biased, leaving out the full context of Schiller’s remarks.

Sure, even “60 Minutes” edits. But is it fair to leave in just the intemperate remarks when the raw video shows a more balanced take? Schiller may disparage Tea Party members as xenophobic (his most offensive remark to some). But in context, The Blaze says Schiller actually is expressing views told to him by other Republicans, of whom he speaks positively, claiming a belief himself in fiscal conservatism.

The other point widely reported and used against Schiller is his statement that NPR “in the long run” would be better off without federal funding. The Blaze’s analysis of the unedited raw video, however, shows Schiller detailing more fully why federal funding is important.

The fallout: Schiller’s no longer with NPR, nor is CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation).

The Muslim Education Action Center Trust? It’s still fake. And it’s fueling the fervor to cut public radio’s federal funding.

People should be smart enough not to be fooled. NPR certainly has its problems. The legacy of bad management goes back to before I was at NPR. But cutting federal funding now doesn’t punish NPR, just the small unsung stations and their listeners in the heart of America

Those folks are still very real. And still very underserved.

I can’t speak for their politics, but I trust they remain grammatically correct.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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