RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today, we take a closer look at the videotape that led to the ouster of two senior executives at NPR. It began last Tuesday when conservative activist James O'Keefe posted the footage. It showed the network's chief fundraiser, Ron Schiller, disparaging the Tea Party, and saying that NPR would be better off without federal funding.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
But that video itself is now coming under greater scrutiny. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports that much of what Schiller said was presented in a misleading light.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: James O'Keefe's tapes show Ron Schiller and his deputy, Betsy Liley, at an upscale cafe in Georgetown for lunch back in February. They met two men posing as officials with an Islamic trust. The men were actually O'Keefe's associates - citizen-journalists, he calls them. When the conservative Daily Caller website posted an 11-and-a-half-minute version of the hidden-camera video on Tuesday, it ricocheted around the blogosphere, mortified NPR, and triggered the ousters of Ron Schiller and his boss, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who is no relation.
O'Keefe hasn't replied to several requests for comment from NPR. He told CNN's Howard Kurtz on Sunday his use of hidden cameras was in the finest traditions of muckraking journalism.
Mr. JAMES O'KEEFE: I think journalists have been doing this for a long time. I think it's a form of investigative reporting that you use to seek and find the truth.
FOLKENFLIK: O'Keefe told CNN his sting was inspired by NPR's decision to drop longtime news analyst Juan Williams last October for his comments on Fox News about Muslims.
Mr. O'KEEFE: The tape is very powerful. The tape is very honest. The tape cuts to the core of who these people are.
FOLKENFLIK: But the 26-year-old O'Keefe's own record is checkered. His takedown of the community organizing group ACORN relied on undercover videos that prosecutors in California concluded badly distorted what occurred. Last May, O'Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after an attempted video sting at Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu's offices.
In NPR's case, O'Keefe also posted a two-hour-long video that he said was the largely raw video and audio, so people could evaluate his claims.
Scott Baker is editor-in-chief of the conservative website The Blaze, created by Fox News host Glenn Beck. The site did just that.
Mr. SCOTT BAKER (Editor-in-Chief, The Blaze): There certainly was a lot there for conservatives and people of faith and Tea Party activists to be bothered about. But we felt like that wasn't the whole story. There were a lot of other things said that may have been complimentary to conservatives and to people of faith and to Tea Party activists - in the same conversations.
FOLKENFLIK: This weekend, I pored over the tapes aided by Baker and others with experience in analyzing video and audio tape. Broadcast journalist Al Tompkins is among them. He teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Initially, Tompkins said...
Mr. AL TOMPKINS (Poynter Institute): What I saw was an executive at NPR who was expressing political - overtly political opinions that I was really uncomfortable with. Particularly the way the video was edited, it just seemed like he was spouting off about practically everything.
FOLKENFLIK: But Tompkins said his mind was changed by watching that two-hour version.
Mr. TOMPKINS: I tell my children there's two ways to lie. One is to tell me something that didn't happen, and the other is not to tell me something that did happen. I think that they employed both techniques in this.
FOLKENFLIK: O'Keefe's edited video triggered criticism right from his introduction, in which he ominously describes the phony Islamic group.
(Soundbite of video recording) Mr. O'KEEFE: On the MEAC website, it said the organization sought to quote, spread the acceptance of Sharia across the world.
Mr. RON SCHILLER (Former Chief Fundraising Official, NPR): Really, that's what they said?
(Soundbite of laughter)
FOLKENFLIK: That laughing response from Ron Schiller? Actually, the longer tape shows that's from an innocuous exchange as Schiller and Liley greet the two supposed donors. Again, Scott Baker...
Mr. BAKER: That, to us, was a signal that they were trying to condition the person watching the piece to feel as though there was assent to these ideas. That was a big warning flag.
FOLKENFLIK: Tompkins says O'Keefe portrayed the fundraisers as though they would do anything to appease donors. On the shorter tape, you would have heard one of the fake donors assailing a Zionist influence on the media, and Betsy Liley responding affirmingly.
(Soundbite of video recording)
Mr. Schiller: NPR is one of the few places that has the courage to really present it. There's kind of a joke that - we used to call it National Palestinian Radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BETSY LILEY: OK.
FOLKENFLIK: But on the shorter tape, you do not hear Ron Schiller immediately tell the two men that donors cannot expect to influence news coverage because of a firewall protecting the newsroom.
(Soundbite of video recording)
Mr. SCHILLER: There is such a big firewall between funding and reporting, and reporters will not be swayed in any way, shape or form.
FOLKENFLIK: Reporters will not be swayed - that's from the longer tapes. Al Tompkins.
Mr. TOMPKINS: The message that he said most often - I counted six times - he told these two people that he had never met before, that you cannot buy coverage. He says it over and over and over again.
FOLKENFLIK: Sacramento-based digital forensic consultant Mark Menz also reviewed both tapes at my request.
Mr. MARK MENZ (Digital Forensic Consultant): The short one is definitely edited in a form and fashion to lead you to a certain conclusion. You might say it's looking only at the dirty laundry.
FOLKENFLIK: While Menz said he found some of Schiller's actual remarks disturbing, he concluded the shorter video presented the conversation markedly out of sequence.
Mr. MENZ: For me, in my background, it immediately puts things into question. You really don't know what context these were in. What was going on in the 20 minutes before and after this question was asked?
FOLKENFLIK: Ron Schiller spoke of growing up as a Republican and admiring the party's fiscal conservatism, but said it was being taken over by people fanatical about other people's private lives. In the shorter tape, Schiller also appeared to say the GOP has been hijacked by xenophobes. In the longer tape it's evident Schiller is not offering his own views but quoting two influential Republicans, if uncritically.
The videos gave fresh momentum to congressional Republicans seeking to cut all federal funding for public broadcasting. Schiller appears to be telling the two donors NPR would do just fine without federal dollars, though some stations would go dark. On the longer tape, it's clear Schiller says that would be disastrous for public radio in the short term.
Al Tompkins says O'Keefe's editing was blatantly unfair.
Mr. TOMPKINS: Except for a couple of unfortunate forays into political opinion, I think that Ron Schiller actually did a fairly remarkably good job of explaining how NPR works, and what you can and cannot expect if you contribute money to the NPR Foundation.
FOLKENFLIK: The Blaze's Scott Baker.
Mr. BAKER: I think if you look at the two hours in total, you largely get an impression that these are pretty - they seem to be fairly balanced people, trying to do a fairly good job.
FOLKENFLIK: Late last night, NPR senior vice president Dana Davis Rehm issued a statement saying O'Keefe inappropriately edited the videos with an intent to discredit the network. But NPR, she said, had confirmed from the outset that Ron Schiller had, indeed, made egregious statements.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.