Rush to Report NPR Sting Trumped Full Tape's Contents

Undercover videos released Tuesday showed NPR's top fundraiser speaking disparagingly both of conservatives and of NPR's need for federal funding led to his ouster and that of his boss — the network's CEO — the same day. But some key elements were presented in a misleading way.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host

We are now going to revisit a story from last week. I'm talking about the undercover video that showed NPR's top fundraiser speaking disparagingly of conservatives and the question of whether NPR needs federal funding.

It led to his ouster and that of his boss, the network CEO, on the same day. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reported earlier today on MORNING EDITION that some key remarks captured in that video were edited in a misleading way.

Now, David explains how so much happened all in one day.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Last Tuesday morning, conservative activist James O'Keefe III posted an eleven-and-a-half-minute version of his video of NPR's top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, schmoozing with two men over lunch who were posing as donors from a Muslim charity. The two men were actually O'Keefe's associates.

Later, O'Keefe posted a longer version, presenting almost the entire lunch. But that shorter tape drew blood as soon as it was posted on The Daily Caller Tuesday morning. Slate magazine's Dave Weigel was among the many bloggers and reporters who noted the video and linked to it.

Mr. DAVE WEIGEL (Slate): Let's be brutally honest. The rush is to get traffic and to get the people of your organization booked on shows to talk about it leads you to not do the rigor and fact-checking that you do in other situations.

FOLKENFLIK: Weigel says the impact around the blogosphere was tremendous and, he adds, dangerous.

Mr. WEIGEL: There's not really any backstop in the media to say, well, before we run this video around the clock and before we have people on to discuss what's in the video, we're going to demand more information about it.

FOLKENFLIK: O'Keefe targets institutions he opposes. His video stings took down the community organizing group ACORN, but prosecutors in New York City and California concluded he had edited the tape so misleadingly that he misrepresented what actually occurred.

Inside NPR, his tapes were calamitous. Schiller's comments seemed to be not only pandering to donors with some questionable views but offense to conservatives, to Tea Party members and to evangelical Christians.

And he also seemed to dismiss the need for NPR to receive any federal funds at a time it is fighting the effort by congressional Republicans to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting.

DANA DAVIS REHM: The comments that NPR and many stations would survive given the elimination of federal funding simply wasn't a responsible statement for an NPR executive to make in a public setting.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR senior vice president for external communications Dana Davis Rehm. She said despite O'Keefe's clearly hostile intentions, executives felt Schiller had made unquestionably inappropriate remarks at a precarious political moment.

REHM: This is a serious threat to the future of public broadcasting and the things for which it stands.

FOLKENFLIK: Within hours, Schiller apologized and was placed on administrative leave, but he had already announced that he was heading for a job at the Aspen Institute. His departure was made effective immediately.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who is no relation, condemned his remarks as appalling. She had survived the outcry after NPR's earlier decision to drop former news analyst Juan Williams, but she, too, was soon out.

By Tuesday evening, fallout was raining down from the media, from member stations and, according to two sources, from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes federal money to public broadcasting outlets.

Dave Edwards, the general manager for Milwaukee Public Radio, is chairman of NPR's board.

DAVE EDWARDS: It seems like it happened quickly, but a lot happened during the course of that day. With all that was going on in Congress, with all that was going on around the country, we had to make that assessment again, and so we did.

FOLKENFLIK: In those first hours, executives were relying on transcripts, and the full board had not watched the full video. In the days since, the Blaze, a news aggregation site set up by Fox News's Glenn Beck, and then NPR News, found many instances in O'Keefe's shorter news-setting tape where key elements of Ron Schiller's remarks were significantly misrepresented.

Ben Smith, a leading blogger for Politico, says he now regrets passing along the material from O'Keefe's video.

Mr. BEN SMITH (Blogger, Politico): It was foolish not to be distrusting, to be even more skeptical in the first place. In watching the clips, I was thinking about it and didn't see how they could have been deceptively edited, and it was really, just for a lot of us, it was just slipshod.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR chairman Dave Edwards says the network did not heedlessly: It needed to move on. A scandalous disclosure, unwanted publicity, a high-profile media ouster all on a single busy day.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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