NPR CEO Resigns In Wake Of 'Sting Video'

NPR has announced that NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller has resigned. The departure follows the release of a secretly taped video showing then-NPR senior vice president for fundraising Ron Schiller (no relation) making disparaging remarks about conservatives.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Today, NPR announced the resignation of President and CEO Vivian Schiller, that after conservative activists released an undercover ambush video yesterday that showed the company's senior fundraiser disparaging Republicans, conservatives and the Tea Party, and suggesting that, in the long run, NPR would be better off without federal funding.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us in just a moment. If you have questions for him, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Folkenflik joins us now from a studio at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg in Florida. And David, thanks very much.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Of course.

CONAN: And why don't we start with this video? What was the setup?

FOLKENFLIK: Boy, and setup is the proper word there. Ron Schiller, and -who was the, at that time, the senior vice president for fundraising here at NPR, was with a top deputy, Betsy Liley, at an upscale cafe in Georgetown, you know, a nice part of Washington, D.C., with two men who presented themselves as officials with a Muslim group that was very interested in giving a major donation to NPR.

In fact, they were associates of a young man named James O'Keefe III. He's a conservative activist. He sees himself as a citizen journalist. He has targeted a number of groups that he condemns, some of them validly liberal, some of them he condemns as liberal. He's done undercover videos of ACORN and of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. In an incident...

CONAN: Planned Parenthood. Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: And Planned Parenthood. In the Landrieu incident, he was arrested for - you know, accused of doing things on federal property that he was not supposed to be doing. He also attempted, at one point, to lure an investigative reporter for CNN, a woman named Abbie Boudreau, onto a boat stocked with sexual toys as a way of humiliating and embarrassing her. She, sort of, was waved off at the last minute.

In this instance, the donors spoke seemingly disparagingly of Jewish people and of people who believe in Israel. They condemned what they said was a Zionist influence on news organizations. It appears from the tape that Ron Schiller himself said, you know, there's no such bias or influence at NPR, but that there were Jewish groups that supported NPR that might not agree with everything we do, and that he imagined there were Muslim groups that felt the same way.

However, in some ways, the more incendiary remarks were twofold. One was that he condemned conservatives and particularly very conservative Republicans. He condemned evangelicals. He condemned those active in the Tea Party movement, belittled them, said, in some ways, there are racist elements to - or threads to their thinking.

You know, NPR presents itself as a news organization that, despite its conservative critics, does not have an agenda, that it tries to be civil and open-minded. His remarks were repudiated by NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, yesterday in the strongest possible terms.

He - you know, calls for his departure, for his ouster were muted by the fact that he had already announced on March 3rd that he was going to head to his hometown of Aspen, Colorado, to take a job at the Aspen Institute. He was, instead, put on immediate leave and then, sort of, resigned yesterday, effective immediately. He had been commuting back and forth for 18 months at his own expense from Aspen, where his partner lives, his domestic partner.

And so the question is, you know, how does NPR deal with that? It was deeply embarrassing and it comes, of course - and I think this is impossible to overstress - it comes at a time when there has been a push by conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House of Representatives, to strip public broadcasting of all of its funding. And it was proposed last June, but that was a time at which Democrats controlled the House. Now Republicans controlled the House and it passed pretty swiftly.

And so this plays into that. The board had - of directors at NPR - had already dealt with the Juan Williams situation, some would say not dealt with it that well. But Juan Williams had been fired by Vivian Schiller and by NPR's then-senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, who had concluded that in talking about his fearfulness at seeing Muslim - people in Muslim garb on airplanes, that he had made one offensive comment too many. That dismissal, as you remember, incurred an...

CONAN: Sure.

FOLKENFLIK: ...incredible outcry. And, ultimately, Ellen Weiss lost her job. Now, as the last final shoe fell, I think it's about - it feels like about 37 shoes falling. You know, Vivian Schiller herself acknowledged that she needed to leave, and was ousted by the board.

CONAN: And so there is no vice president for news - or no permanent vice president. There's a acting president and CEO, and no vice president for development. Those are three pretty important positions.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's a time of incredible turnover and tumult, a time of what feels like self-inflicted wounds, if you talk to our colleagues, as I do. If you talk among the executive staff, they acknowledge this. This is a time where, you know, NPR's journalism has never had a wider reach online or on the air. It's never been seen as more authoritative. It has, you know, something like 18, 19 bureaus abroad. It is providing comprehensive coverage of the uprisings in the Middle East, as but one example, in multiple countries there.

And yet at the executive level and at the board level, you know, there's been this dissonance, and there appears to be a gap between the professionalism with which journalists and listeners perceive NPR's performance and the leadership itself. You know - and you wanted - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CONAN: I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions. An old reporter, the man announces - this is Ron Schiller, no relation to Vivian Schiller. Ron Schiller announces his departure last week after the video was made, before it was released. Did NPR know about the video at the time that he was allowed to resign and take a job at the Aspen Institute?

FOLKENFLIK: I've been told by about four or five senior executives at NPR that the video was posted, let's say, call it about 7:45 yesterday morning, and that they found out about it moments later. The Daily Caller, a conservative website put up by Tucker Carlson, splashed it on its pages and wrote a story to accompany it, but it was, you know, posted perhaps a little more obscurely on O'Keefe's own website.

So this was something that they were completely taken aback by. They tell me -I have not been able to speak to Ron Schiller directly, but they tell me that he was completely surprised. He had no idea about this until it was already posted and NPR was asked for comment about it by The Daily Caller itself. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to say, also, the departure of the senior vice president for development and the president and CEO of NPR, we know that sometimes, senior executives of various corporations leave with various kinds of bonuses and parachutes and that kind of thing. Do we know anything like that in these cases?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think they're just absorbing the details. I can't speak authoritatively to that, but I can say that after Schiller's predecessor, Ken Stern, was bought out of his contract, you know, for, you know, something, let's say, on the order of $800,000, in addition to his annual pay for the year that was his last one at this network, that Schiller implemented a policy that executives would no longer have binding contracts so that when they were done, the corporation did not owe them anything. So I can't speak to what she will be paid, but I can say, that, contractually, my understanding is she would not be owed anything.

CONAN: And one of the most incendiary things, from the institutional point of view, that Mr. Schiller said in the video, was that in the long run, he thought NPR would be better off without federal funding. As you mentioned, this comes in the middle of the budget fight over federal funding - though he also mentioned that if that happened this year, a lot of NPR stations would go dark.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. And it was instantly seized on by people like the Colorado congressman who was the initial sponsor of this legislation, and it was seized on by House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, who spoke to that very remark.

I will say, if you watched the longer video, which O'Keefe has posted on his website, you know, Schiller takes a sort of - a lengthy explanation of how the system works and is interlocked to say that NPR, on itself, you know, NPR proper might prosper well and be relieved to avoid any possible political meddling, but that it would indeed affect a lot of our rural stations, a lot of our smaller stations, you know. A typical station might get 10 to 15 percent of its funding from federal funds, but some of those smaller stations get up to 50 percent. And I've had public media officials tell me that they fear that about 100 stations would go dark.

CONAN: We - just a slight correction. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, not the majority whip.

FOLKENFLIK: Oh, I'm sorry. He got...

CONAN: Misspoken. But he got promoted after the last Congress.

FOLKENFLIK: Correct.

CONAN: So anyway...

FOLKENFLIK: That's right.

CONAN: ...let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who's with us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. The subject, the latest brouhaha here at NPR.

And let's go first to Nick, and Nick with us from Bowling Green in Kentucky.

NICK (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.

NICK: I do think that you all should have your funding cut, primarily because I'm not certain that you do need it. I think you'll make it fine without it. My beef with NPR in - and the reason that I don't really appreciate my tax dollars going to you guys is because I think you're very biased in your coverage, in your story selection. I think anybody that doubts that can just go to your website and see the stories that are heard on air.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NICK: Just pick any topic that is a liberal pet project - the environment, for example, abortion. The stories that you all cover there just - you know, if you go and click on "heard on air" and listen, go for...

CONAN: I catch your drift, Nick. I just wanted to ask: Then why do you listen?

NICK: I listen because I do like to be well-informed, and I like to hear a lot of different views. And when I listen to NPR, I'm listening for the liberal point of view. When I want the conservative point of view, I listen to Rush Limbaugh. And I don't - you know, frankly, this - my friends laugh, but I don't see a lot of difference.

Rush Limbaugh covers the news to - and discusses it in a way to illustrate his point of view. The biggest difference is that Rush Limbaugh does not claim to be unbiased. He will tell you right out front.

CONAN: Okay.

NICK: And Rush Limbaugh also doesn't get tax money.

CONAN: Nick, hold on just a second. We want to get a response from David Folkenflik, here.

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, look, I'm both the guy who covers NPR, and I don't mean to speak for NPR's executive suites, but I'm also a journalist who works at NPR. And I'd say that, you know, there are many differences between NPR and Rush Limbaugh. And he does what he does, and he's upfront about it. You know, he's both somebody who has political commentary, and he sees himself as an entertainer who seeks to have a large enough audience that he can charge confiscatory advertising rates, you know.

We don't do it in that model. But we also have, you know, hundreds of journalists working behind us to develop original news stories, and people are entitled to judge us on what we put on the air.

CONAN: David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Jonathan, Jonathan with us from Muncie, Indiana.

Jonathan, are you there? Jonathan? I guess Jonathan has left us.

Here's an email that we have from John: An NPR exec, with little prompting and no foundation, calls conservatives racist and xenophobes. What reason do radio listeners have to believe the same bias and bigotry is not shared by NPR's news directors, program hosts and reporters?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if you're asking for my response, I would say a couple of things. First off, Ron Schiller apologized profusely for what he said. He said that they don't - that his remarks, as presented, do not reflect what he really believes, and he was very apologetic.

I would also say, as a side note, that, you know, prosecutors in California and New York have concluded in investigations of his videos of ACORN that the videos were heavily edited to eliminate exculpatory and to heighten or even distort statements in such a way as to be deeply misleading and unfair. So I can't be 100 percent convinced that even the seemingly unedited videos shown, the two-hour version, are as they actually occurred.

That said, you know, NPR repudiated the comments as soon as they were uttered. Mr. Schiller, you know, was - I guess the term I used last night on the air was sucking up to donors in a certain way, to prospective donors. And he was a chief fundraising officer. He's not a guy who is allowed to play in the vineyards of journalism...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: ...and, in fact, did not come up through the vineyards of journalism. So, you know, it's - it is - people are entitled to look at us askance. I again say that I think, as journalists, we have to be judged by the stories we put on the air.

People are - should draw what knowledge, support or disdain that they have from what we actually do journalistically.

CONAN: Also, important to note that though repeatedly offered, a check was not accepted by Mr. Schiller. It's important to note that today, the Aspen Institute said he would not be taking a job there, in - given the circumstances that have evolved since then.

Interesting also that PBS said it was approached by the same bogus Middle East donors and then did not take the bait, as it will. So there is no video for PBS - of PBS fundraisers meeting with this group, because they didn't meet with them.

Anyway, let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Amir, Amir with us from Tehran in Iran.

AMIR (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, Amir.

AMIR: I am deeply worried about this latest controversy over your funding because as an Iranian, I'm not sure what would happen to NPR Worldwide; that is the station to which I'm listening right now.

You know, it is a satellite channel, and if you lose the federal funding, it's quite likely that you might lose this station that is a major source of news for many Iranians here. And I'm not sure if you've heard this, your website in Iran has been filtered, so the only way we can listen to NPR is via your satellite channel. So I am deeply worried and concerned about the latest controversy over there.

CONAN: Amir, thanks very much for the vote of confidence. And I guess, David Folkenflik, it's too early to say what the effects might be. We don't know what the funding is going to be this year or next.

The White House said today - Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the president still supports funding for NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

So literally, we don't know what's going to happen. If the funds were cut off -and we just have a brief period - time left here, David. But if the funds were to be...

AMIR: (unintelligible) NPR Worldwide?

CONAN: We don't know, is the answer, Amir. We simply don't know. But if the funds were cut off, I think it's fair to say public television would be hurt a lot more than public radio.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, television's just a fundamentally much more expensive venture, and so it would indeed deeply hit public television harder. And in fact, you know, PBS has not evolved to the extent that NPR has, as its own generator of journalism to anything like the same degree.

You know, we really have become the broadcaster. This older technology of radio ushered into the new age, online and on the air, has become a more resilient and more robust public broadcaster.

CONAN: Amir, thanks very much for the call. And we should note tomorrow, Iranian-American Maz Jobrani will be with us on the broadcast. He's known as a founding member of the Axis of Evil comedy tour. You might be interested to join us for that. But we, as always, thank you for the phone call.

And David Folkenflik, thank you for your time today. We know you're busy, and I expect we're going to hear from you later today in ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FOLKENFLIK: You're not wrong.

CONAN: David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, with us from a studio at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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