National Public Radio long has attracted complaints from conservatives that it has a liberal tilt. By seeming to confirm that view, a senior NPR fundraising official has provided the network's critics with undreamed-of ammunition. More than ever, NPR needs to remember its obligation as a recipient of government funds to be balanced and nonpartisan.
On Tuesday, a conservative activist released a video showing the fundraiser, Ronald Schiller, disparaging "tea party" members as "gun-toting" racists and fundamentalist Christians who have "hijacked" the Republican Party. The video, which was surreptitiously recorded, led to Schiller's departure from the network. But NPR didn't consider his removal sufficient to propitiate its critics. On Wednesday, it announced that its chief executive, Vivian Schiller (no relation), also was stepping down.
This compounded crisis for NPR comes amid a serious effort by congressional Republicans to stop federal funding for the network. In February, the House voted to eliminate $451 million for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which indirectly subsidizes NPR.
Proponents of cutting funding for NPR emphasize (publicly, anyway) cost-saving, not ideology. To that end, they cite Ronald Schiller, who, in addition to his comments about the tea party, said in the video that NPR could survive without government assistance. (He added an important qualification: "in the long run.")
Whether driven by ideology or austerity, defunding of public radio would be a tragedy. NPR is a national asset, providing diverse and absorbing programming, much of which isn't duplicated by commercial radio. But its role as a recipient of government funds imposes an obligation to avoid partisanship in its news programming and in the statements of its managers. All things considered, that's the best way to counter critics' charges of bias.