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Schiller's fall puts NPR funds at risk

By Jill Drew, Special to CNN
  • Jill Drew says NPR exec's fortunes tied to those of her hire, who was discredited in video
  • Drew: By hiring Ron Schiller and botching Juan Williams' firing, she's left NPR vulnerable again
  • She says Vivian Schiller was vital to restoring NPR's morale, mission, and moving it to Web
  • Drew: Public funding threatened now, but detractors should consider NPR's important role

Editor's note: Jill Drew, a former senior editor and reporter for The Washington Post, is acting managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. You can read her profile of Vivian Schiller's first year at NPR on the CJR website.

(CNN) -- News accounts of the sacking of National Public Radio Chief Executive Vivian Schiller are careful to point out that she is not a blood relation to Ron Schiller, who, until Tuesday, had been NPR's senior vice president for development -- before he was caught on tape disparaging Tea Party members and the Republican Party in general.

But, unfortunately for her, she is related to Ron Schiller in the sense that he was one of her first big hires after she took the top NPR job in January 2009. WNYC President Laura Walker referred to the duo as "The Schillers," because they traveled the country together meeting with donors and local public radio officials attempting to build a fundraising juggernaut that would benefit all of public media, with NPR at the center.

As chief executive, Schiller defined her top priority to be creating a stable funding base for NPR to do its thing, which is a pretty important thing, actually: delivering high-quality journalism in which listeners of all political stripes can hear their issues addressed in a serious manner.

It is tragic that, by hiring Schiller and botching the firing last year of former NPR commentator Juan Williams, a favorite of conservatives, she has placed public radio funding on its most precarious footing in recent memory.

Some conservative Republicans have denounced NPR, accusing it of a liberal bias, and they are calling for Congress to zero out its government funding.

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Although only a small portion of NPR's funding today comes directly from the $430 million annual appropriation to the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the battle to defund public media is a crisis for most local public radio stations. They rely heavily on government funds to produce their own shows and pay fees to NPR for its programming, including "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," arguably two of the most influential programs in news today.

Ron Schiller's comments have inflamed the issue. Schiller was caught in a secret videotape made by conservative sting artist James O'Keefe, whose operatives met with Schiller at a Washington restaurant and surreptitiously filmed him calling Tea Party members "racists" and "xenophobes," and making other derogatory statements about conservatives.

Now it will be a monumental task to bring the fire back under control and protect public funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NPR's board, which is controlled by local station executives, probably had no choice other than to demand Vivian Schiller's resignation. There was no Ellen Weiss (the news director forced to resign in the wake of the Williams' firing) standing between her and Ron Schiller.

This threat couldn't come at worse time for journalism, which is still groping for a firm business model that will support the serious investment needed to produce serious reporting. NPR, under Vivian Schiller's leadership, had regained its footing and was sprinting ahead, producing hard-hitting investigations for the first time in addition to more immediate and compelling coverage of national and world events, with stories made accessible on the radio, iPhone and laptop.

When she took its reins, NPR was a demoralized shop. Its staff had been shaken by cutbacks and significant layoffs that many believed had been handled callously. It was behind the curve in embracing digital media.

And it was brawling with local stations, who felt snubbed by NPR executives' imperious attitudes and fearful that a growing website would cause community contributors to bypass their local stations and give directly to NPR. She worked to mend relations with the local stations, restore mission and confidence to her staff, and for that she deserves a lot of credit.

But it's often the problem you're not looking out for that gets you. I don't know what Ron Schiller's political beliefs are. I know he was caught doing what lots of fundraisers do: apparently flattering and agreeing with people he thought were potential donors. I don't know what his standing was in the end with his former boss -- he had already announced that he was leaving NPR for the Aspen Institute when the video was published. (He has since said he won't be taking the Aspen Institute job.)

I hope those with the pitchforks shouting for blood would quiet down enough to listen to NPR's reports before branding it a bastion of East Coast liberal bias. To my ears, it's the smartest, most middle-of-the-road reporting out there today. I'm happy a few of my tax dollars find their way into some coffer that supports what they do, nestling next to my contributions to my local public radio station.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jill Drew.

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