NPR and the American Mainstream

National Public Radio CEO, Vivian Schiller, has resigned after two high-profile NPR executives were caught on tape saying that the Republican Party had been “hijacked” by the Tea Party and that the Tea Party was essentially a white-only organization dominated by gun-toting zealots on the racist fringes of American society.

Ms. Schiller had been criticized last October for what many considered her ungracious and impolitic response to the Juan Williams fiasco.

Most of the controversial remarks caught on video were nade by Ronald Schiller (no relation to Ms. Schiller).  Mr.  Schiller had been invited to a fancy luncheon by two Republican provocateurs posing as deep-pocket Muslim activists representing a mythical Muslim group that was supposedly planning to give NPR a $5 million gift.

The timing of this latest fiasco couldn’t be worse.  Leading Republicans have been arguing that NPR was far too left-of-center to receive federal support.  According to this argument, it’s okay for FOX News to slant its reporting to the right because it is a private agency.  The liberal bias of NPR is a more serious matter, critics contend, because the organization is feeding at the federal teat.

The success of this latest Republican media coup is driven by the centrist-extremist theory according to which, “dissident movements of the left and right (are) portrayed as composed of outsiders–politically marginal people who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power.” 

Centrist-extremist theory suggests that the Tea Party cannot possibly be dominated by racists because racism is only found on the radical fringes of American society and, as the 2010 election showed, Tea Party ideas are popular with the electorate.  This places Tea Party dogma at the center of American life and means that contrary-minded NPR executives are themselves “out of the mainstream”.

American politics has devolved into a prolonged (and highly tedious) exercise in “more-mainstream-than-thou” one-upmanship (or one-up-personship, if you’re a liberal).  Democrats and Republicans insist that their views reflect centrist opinion and that their party “speaks for America”.

Vivian Schiller’s swift resignation demonstrates the pervasive influence of centrist-extremist thinking.  Unfortunately, this view of the world can’t stand up to serious scrutiny.  Extremist views have always lived at the very core of American life.  For instance, Congress was unable to pass a law that banned lynching throughout the first half of the 20th century because Southern Democrats refused to cooperate.  Opposition to the civil rights movement was mainstream until John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson decided, albeit tentatively, to embrace the movement.  Four years later, Richard Nixon proved that racial white resentment was still a mainstream American value.

Nothing could be more centrist in contemporary American life than anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-Muslim sentiment.  Only those on the fringes of national life are willing to honor the full humanity of immigrants, the undocumented, gays, criminal defendants and Muslim Americans.  (New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington DC are the exceptions that prove the rule.)

Vivian Schiller
Vivian Schiller

The Tea Party is both racist and centrist.  Sure, there are people in the movement (mostly Libertarians) who reject the tenets of white supremacy, but they are rarely the folks holding the placards.  When we’re talking Tea Party, we are talking about men and women who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and who have a sentimental attachment to the political values of their youth (high taxes for the wealthy excepted). 

Old school, in-you-face, I-hate-black-people, racism still exists, but in a greatly weakened form.    At the same time, Americans are far less inclined to desire the common good than we were between, say, 1932 and 1964; we are far less likely to embrace the losers in our great national game of musical chairs and much more likely to valorize the winners.  The fact that the folks without a chair are disproportionately black and brown is a matter of coincidence.  Sure, we turn our back on the poor, the addicted, the elderly and the insane, but that doesn’t make us racists.  

We might be better classified as plain, old-fashioned sinners.  Being in the center of public opinion doesn’t make you virtuous and it sure doesn’t make you right; but, as Vivian Schiller has learned to her sorrow, it sure makes you powerful.

If you’re looking for more background, here’s the New York Times take on the story.

Chief Executive of NPR Resigns

March 9, 2011, 9:42 am


NPR said Wednesday that the public radio organization’s board had accepted the resignation of its chief executive, Vivian Schiller.

Vivian SchillerHer resignation comes at a precarious time for public broadcasting, as Republicans in Congress are trying to strip NPR and its member stations of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. NPR has been consumed by controversy as of late; most recently, a Republican filmmaker released a video on Tuesday that showed one of NPR’s fund-raising executives repeatedly criticizing Republicans and Tea Party supporters in a conversation with people posing as prospective donors.

That incident, as well as an earlier one involving Juan Williams, who was dismissed by NPR last fall, “became such a distraction to the organization it hindered Vivian Schiller’s ability to lead the organization going forward,” Dave Edwards, the chairman of NPR’s board of directors, said Wednesday.

Joyce Slocum, NPR’s senior vice president for legal affairs and general counsel, will serve as interim chief executive while a committee seeks a permanent replacement for Ms. Schiller. There was no timetable given for the executive search.

Mr. Edwards said that Ms. Schiller offered to resign “if that was the board’s will, and the board decided that it was.” That said, “this was a very difficult decision for her and a very difficult decision for the board to accept,” Mr. Edwards said. He praised Ms. Schiller’s leadership through tough economic times and her “vision and energy.”

Ms. Schiller said she spoke with NPR’s board members on Tuesday evening, about twelve hours after the release of the embarrassing video, and then had a conversation with Mr. Edwards later in the evening. She declined to elaborate on the conversations.

“I obviously had no prior knowledge” of the executive’s comments, “and nothing to do with them, and disavowed them as soon as I learned of them all. But I’m the C.E.O., and the buck stops here,” she said in an interview Wednesday morning.

She added, “I’m hopeful that my departure from NPR will have the intended effect of easing the defunding pressure on public broadcasting.” Ms. Schiller has been campaigning in recent months against potential funding cuts.

Ms. Schiller took the helm at NPR in January 2009. Before joining the organization, she was a senior vice president at The New York Times Company, where she was general manager of

She was respected by many at NPR for helping re-orient the organization in the digital media age. But she was chastened by the NPR board for her handling of Mr. Williams’s dismissal last fall, and she recognized on Tuesday that the video released by the Republican filmmaker James O’Keefe was a new hurdle for her and her organization.

In the video, the NPR fund-raising executive, Ronald Schiller, who is not related to Ms. Schiller, was heard telling people posing as Muslim philanthropists that the Republican Party had been “hijacked” by the Tea Party and that Tea Party supporters were “seriously racist, racist people.” Mr. Schiller, who was already scheduled to leave NPR soon to take a job at the Aspen Institute, said on Tuesday night that he would leave immediately.

Echoing Ms. Schiller’s disavowal of the executive’s comments, Mr. Edwards said Wednesday that he found it to be “upsetting to my core.”

Speaking with reporters on a conference call, Mr. Edwards acknowledged that Ms. Schiller “was not responsible for many of the mistakes that were made.” But he added, “The CEO for any organization is accountable for all of the actions of the organization.”

In a separate interview, Ms. Schiller spoke fondly of her tenure at the organization. “I am sorry to be leaving NPR,” she said. “I think it’s an extraordinary organization, and while the organization is on the right track there’s much work to be done. I regret I’m not going to be part of it.” She praised NPR’s journalists as “heroic and uncompromising in their work.”

She continued, “I arrived at NPR in January 2009, and the organization was in terrible financial straits.” Now, she said, “it’s in the black and expanding its journalism and it’s breaking new ground in terms of digital journalism.” She said that while she alone could not take all the credit, “I had a very clear vision for NPR that I hope will continue, and I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done.”

The text of the NPR announcement about Ms. Schiller’s resignation follows:

It is with deep regret that I tell you that the NPR Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Vivian Schiller as President and C.E.O. of NPR, effective immediately.

The Board accepted her resignation with understanding, genuine regret, and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.

Vivian brought vision and energy to this organization. She led NPR back from the enormous economic challenges of the previous two years. She was passionately committed to NPR’s mission, and to stations and NPR working collaboratively as a local-national news network.

According to a CEO succession plan adopted by the Board in 2009, Joyce Slocum, S.V.P. of Legal Affairs and General Counsel, has been appointed to the position of Interim C.E.O. The Board will immediately establish an Executive Transition Committee that will develop a timeframe and process for the recruitment and selection of new leadership.

I recognize the magnitude of this news — and that it comes on top of what has been a traumatic period for NPR and the larger public radio community. The Board is committed to supporting NPR through this interim period and has confidence in NPR’s leadership team.

One thought on “NPR and the American Mainstream

  1. Has the Tea Party ever made a statement condemning racism as part of their policy, or anything like that, as the NAACP asked them to do? But, in this instance, truth is not a defense, unlike a suit for slander in a court of law.

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