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Blunders, stings putting NPR in danger

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Blunders, stings putting NPR in danger
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National Public Radio is having a tough time. It's being beaten up and knocked down, its good name dragged through the mud.

It hurts to watch stumble after bumble by executives of this smart radio network. (It's still smart if you listen to it, but behind the scenes, oh my.)

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It started with the Juan Williams affair. Mr. Williams -- who, incredibly enough, was both NPR's house conservative and Fox News' house liberal -- told the Fox audience that he got nervous when he saw people who looked like Muslims board his plane.

The comment raised a dust-up. In the fight that followed, Mr. Williams was fired. (Weep not for him, dear friends; Fox immediately hired him full-time for $2 million.)

The firing raised another dust-up and the executive who fired him "resigned."

It's surprising that a prominent African-American journalist would appear to endorse a form of racial profiling. I didn't think Williams should have been fired for his comment, and I didn't think the editor should have been let go either. I believe in second chances.

Then came the Ron Schiller affair. Mr. Schiller, NPR's top fundraiser, was lured into a meeting with two men posing as wealthy Muslim donors. Heavily edited clips from the secretly videotaped meeting showed him denouncing tea partiers and Republican activists as Islamophobic, "seriously racist," and a little dim.

It's always dangerous to blurt out the truth like that. When the misleading footage of the conversation got out, Mr. Schiller was dismissed. NPR's CEO as well. I can see dismissing the fundraiser -- he was a poster child for the Society of Effete Liberal Snobs -- but firing the CEO is just giving in to the bad guys without a fight.

But wait, there's more. Another tape revealed yet another fundraiser instructing the fake donors on how to use a donation to fudge their taxes. (If that were a crime, every tax adviser would be in jail, but it does seem kind of cheesy for NPR to do it.) As of this writing, she has been placed on leave. But expect a trip to the guillotine soon.

One is tempted to quote the great philosopher Casey Stengel who, after watching his New York Mets butcher their way to another loss, said: "Can't anybody here play this game?"

The Republicans in Congress have responded to all of this by voting to cut off federal funding for public radio. Being realistic, they'd do that anyway. Conservative politicians, most of whom couldn't find their public radio station on the dial, hate public radio the way vampires hate the light.

NPR officials have pretty much stood there and taken the abuse with mild complaint. I think they're afraid if they defend themselves, conservatives will get even angrier with them.

But they will never mollify their critics.

Did I mention that NPR was smart? It is, and if there's one thing conservatives hate, it's smart. Just look at their favorite spokespersons -- Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Mike Pence, Steve King. No Mensa group they.

NPR is one of our most important cultural institutions. It's worth every penny we spend on it. More than 27 million people listen to public stations each week. This is up 58 percent in the past decade. Only 37 percent of them describe themselves as liberals; 28 percent define themselves as conservative or very conservative.

NPR's not an arm of the Democrats, as Fox is of the Republicans. It's not even that liberal. Its staff is made up mainly of liberals, probably, but they are also professionals who seek to do an honest job of telling what's happening in the world -- straight. That's called journalism. Fox News cannot be accused of that sin.

If the federal government were to take away NPR's subsidy, the network would survive. It's not that much money. But being a public institution is important to its mission. It enforces a responsibility that private institutions don't share.

We don't need a liberal version of Fox. We need something much, much better than that. And we have it -- if we can keep it.

OtherWords and retired Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Pioneer staff reports
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