Postscript: Did NPR Learn Anything From O'Keefe Attack?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

In the wake of James O'Keefe's orchestrated gotcha on National Public Radio, Republicans in the House passed a bill to permanently strip public radio of its federal funding support. The bill appears to have little chance of passing in the Senate, but it's clear the Republican Party and the conservative movement have made NPR a prime target of partisan attacks; attacks that will continue for years to come. (Cultural wars are never-ending.)

So even the though O'Keefe's videos have receded from the headlines, how the public radio network responds to the increasingly unethical volleys in the future remains crucial. It's crucial for NPR and it's crucial for other targets of dishonest right-wing assaults. Following the O'Keefe sting, for instance, a defensive NPR made several missteps, including not waiting until all the facts were known about the undercover tapes. (Just like the Dept. of Agriculture did in the Shirley Sherrod case.)

Incredibly though, NPR leaders deny they moved too quickly, which raises questions about what NPR learned from its unwanted time in the partisan spotlight.

Let's review.

When the controversy first erupted, NPR quickly placed Ron Schiller on administrative leave. He, of course, was the professional fundraiser and featured player on the O'Keefe tapes. NPR's CEO condemned his comments featured on tape, and so too, did more than two dozen of his NPR colleagues. (Soon, NPR's CEO was let go.)

The public take-away, whether intended or not, was clear: You caught us red-handed spouting liberal, elitist rhetoric while taking cheap shots at conservatives. We're very sorry and we promise it won't happen again.

Days later though, Glenn Beck's website, The Blaze, reviewed the raw, two-hour video from the surreptitiously recorded lunch with Schiller and found several instances where O'Keefe used unethical editing tactics to rip many of Schiller's comments out of context. (Many, but not all: Schiller did make an controversial comments about Zionists that wasn't altered by editing.)

By the time the truth about the tapes was known, much of the damage to NPR had already been done by sting headlines that had circled the globe. The only bright side was that unlike O'Keefe's ACORN videos, which took several months to be revealed as frauds, the NPR videos were largely debunked in a matter of days, a fact that may have spared the radio network from bipartisan calls for defunding.

Given how the story played out, I was baffled by these revelations, found in a recent Wall Street Journal report [emphasis added]:

An NPR spokeswoman said the organization knew right away the original video was "heavily edited" to discredit NPR but confirmed in a phone call with Mr. Schiller that he made "inappropriate statements that were not, in fact, misrepresented, and which were inexcusable." The spokeswoman said NPR wouldn't have acted differently had it waited to view the full video.

First of all, if NPR leaders knew immediately when the O'Keefe story broke that the tapes he was peddling had been "heavily edited" to discredit NPR, then NPR did a very good job keeping that information to themselves. I followed the breaking news coverage very closely, and I don't recall NPR executives stressing to the public as part of the network's response that the tapes everyone was seeing on TV had been "heavily edited."

Maybe if NPR had made that point emphatically in the press it could have curtailed some of the public relations damage it suffered. (Note to NPR: You have to fight back when bullies attack.)

Secondly, and even more surprising, is NPR's claim that even if it had waited until after The Blaze had weighed in with its detailed debunking of the Schiller tapes, NPR still would have followed the same course of action.

So if The Blaze had somehow been able to show, just hours after the O'Keefe sting was launched (instead of days), that the NPR tapes were heavily and dishonestly edited, NPR still would have moved to publicly disassociated itself with Schiller? NPR still would have essentially conceded defeat at the hands of O'Keefe's operation?

That's hard to believe because under that scenario the bigger story would have been then (as it is now) about the depths to which right-wing activists will stoop to try to embarrass their political enemies, not whatever a professional NPR fundraiser might have said at a lunch.

New York magazine published a helpful cheat sheet to what The Blaze found in its debunking of O'Keefe's NPR tapes. It's worth reading in full to get a sense of the complete smear job O'Keefe did on Schiller:

Although much has been made of the fact that Schiller was meeting with a group linked to the "Muslim Brotherhood in America" in the first place, the fake board members actually downplayed the link themselves. 2) Schiller did not laugh in assent, as it appears, to the idea of instituting Sharia law across the world. He laughed at another funny situation that was unrelated, and that reaction was edited into the Sharia conversation. 3) When he refers to Republicans and the tea party as "really xenophobic" and "seriously racist, racist people," he's actually quoting what another Republican told him. In fact, he speaks positively about fiscal conservatives and small-government advocates. 4) In the edited video, Schiller is seen suggesting that modern-day tea partiers may be less educated than liberals, but his lunch companion, NPR's Betsy Liley, defends the intellect of Fox News viewers. 5) When he talks about the idea that NPR might be better off "in the long run" without federal funding, an edited-out portion included him explaining why local stations still need it, and why NPR continues to advocate for public funds.

Those represent many Schiller comments that can be explained away (or at least put in context) by O'Keefe's dishonest editing.

Against that backdrop though, leaders at NPR claim they would have taken the same damage control steps even if they knew the extent to which the Schiller tapes had been edited?

Like I said, dishonest, right-wing attacks are going to continue. Whether the target is ACORN or Planned Parenthood or teachers or public broadcasting, so-called citizen journalists on the far-right remain dedicated to launching videotape smear campaigns against their perceived political enemies. How the targets react is paramount.

Faced with the hot glare of the O'Keefe-induced spotlight, NPR tried to act responsibly but likely responded rashly. Perhaps more troubling now is the claim from NPR that it would do the same thing all over again.

James O'Keefe
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