Press Box

In Defense of Ron Schiller

Let’s not get too wigged out about the NPR executive’s stupidity.

Still from James O’Keefe’s NPR video

You don’t have to like NPR—I don’t—to come to the defense of Ronald Schiller, the NPR executive who just got stung by video guerilla James O’Keefe. (See Dave Weigel’s a.m., p.m., and late p.m. posts on the story.)

Two O’Keefe associates posed as members of a Muslim Brotherhood front group who expressed interest in donating $5 million to NPR while lunching in a Georgetown restaurant with Schiller and another NPR staffer who also works in fundraising. * The lunch, captured on video, includes several O’Keefean provocations, including a denunciation of the Jewish-Zionist control of the media, which Schiller does not pause between bites to refute. Nor does Schiller flinch when the video guerillas tell him that their organization, the fictitious Muslim Education Action Center (MEAC) Trust, was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.

Schiller and the guerillas trade riffs about how contemptible members of the Tea Party and the Republican Party are. He calls the Tea Party folks “seriously racist.” He expresses his satisfaction in the firing of Juan Williams, and praises liberals and damns conservatives. Schiller laughs when one of the video guerrillas says NPR stands for National Palestinian Radio because of its sympathetic treatment of the Palestinian point of view. The video establishes that Schiller and his associate, Betsy Liley, will say almost anything or ignore any provocation to put themselves into a position to nab the $5 million. I’m sure if O’Keefe’s colleagues had asked Schiller and Liley to get on their hands and knees and bark like dogs they would have answered, “What breed?”

But pardon me if I’m not outraged that 1) a pair of NPR officials hosting potential donors would merrily slag conservatives, Republicans, Tea Party members, and other non-liberals or 2) display temporary deafness when deep-pocketed potential funders say ugly and demented things.

If you’ve ever hung out with rich people, you know they have a lot of crazy ideas and aren’t afraid of expressing them. I don’t know if being wealthy causes people to over-express themselves because it erases the fear that they’ll draw sanctions from polite society, but I am willing to test the proposition if a social scientist wants to send me $100 million.

How should Schiller have fielded the incitements? Praised the Tea Party or remained neutral? Spat on them when they revealed their Muslim Brotherhood connection? Lectured them when they said stupid things about Jewish-Zionist media control?

I certainly would have, and I’ll bet you would have, too. But we’d last about 15 seconds in the fundraising business if every time a potential donor said something crazy or offensive, we told them to shut their pie hole. When people donate money, they feel even more entitled than when they’re sitting in their home bank-vaults running their fingers through their cash. Rich people love to give their money away, but they’re always attaching strings, and one common string is “You agree with me, right?” Can you begin to imagine the bizarre string Joan Kroc, heir to the McDonald’s fortune established by Ray Kroc, must have flung around the room as she prepared to give her NPR handlers $200 million? Ms. Kroc also gave $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army and assorted millions to peace institutes. Those gifts, plus her support of nuclear disarmament, were clearly designed to raise her dead husband, an ardent Nixon-lover and hard-right-winger, from his grave. (The efforts failed. Ray is still dead. But so is Joan.)

From what I can tell, Schiller worked hard to keep the potential giver happy while maintaining a modicum of face.  Still, he shot his mouth off in directions that don’t make him or his organization look very professional. Did he talk like that because he believes the things he said or because he’s found that sucking up to suckers who want to give money to NPR works? Or both? (Weigel calls his panderingmasterful.”)

I see less of a crime here than I do a misdemeanor. I’ve never been a big one for criminalizing or punishing speech. If we’re going to defund NPR (and I think we should), let’s do it for the right reasons—because government shouldn’t be in the business of funding news collection, not because somebody on the money-raising side of the operation said supremely stupid things during a sting. 

Addendum, March 9: Ron Schiller, who had recently gotten a new job at the Aspen Institute, has decided not to go to work there. Vivian Schiller (no relation), the CEO of NPR, has been pushed out. Talk about Schillercide.


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Correction, March 9, 2011: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that James O’Keefe appeared in the NPR sting video. He did not. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)