National Press Club

NPR chief defends funding, rebuffs bias accusations

March 7, 2011

National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller

National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Editor's note: Two days after speaking at a March 7 National Press Club luncheon, NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller resigned in the wake of the release of a videotape showing another NPR executive at a Feb. 22 meeting criticizing the Tea Party as "racist" and asserting that NPR would be better off without federal funding. Following is the coverage of Schiller's appearance at the Club.

The risk that Congress will eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting is greater than ever, Vivian Schiller, NPR president and chief executive officer, told a National Press Club luncheon on March 7.

“There certainly were attempts to defund public broadcasting in 2005 and more famously in 1995, but we didn’t have a $1.4 trillion deficit," Schiller said. "So we take this very seriously, and I think the threat is more serious than in the past.”

NPR was formerly known as National Public Radio but Schiller dropped that moniker last year to show that the organization was providing “more information to more people in more ways,” she said. But radio “is core to everything we do.”

Schiller rebuffed the notion that Congress is coming after NPR because of a perceived liberal bias.

“That has been suggested but the fact is that this country is facing a $1.4 trillion budget deficit, and I don’t envy those in Congress who are trying to bring that deficit down,” she said.

Grants to NPR-member stations from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting represent about 10 percent of the “public radio station economy,” Schiller said. But that average “belies the fact that, for many public radio stations, it is a much higher percentage of revenue.”

Losing public financing “would have a profound impact, we believe, on our ability -- public broadcasting’s ability -- to deliver news and information, and, in the case of television, cultural programming and the arts, to the audience,” Schiller said.

Every news organization is accused of bias, Schiller said.

They are “criticized about being too liberal, about being too conservative about being this, that and the other. It comes with the territory,” she said. “But, I will tell you -- and maybe it doesn’t get as much attention -- but we get a tremendous amount of criticism for being too conservative.”

Club President Mark Hamrick began the Q&A by asking Schiller to reflect on the dismissal of Juan Williams last year.

“We handled the situation badly,” Schiller said. NPR has “fixed some key systems” and processes, she said, but wouldn’t elaborate. “A lot of ink has been spilled on this issue.”

In the wake of the Williams matter, NPR created a task force to review its news code of ethics, first written in 2004. Recommendations from the task force are being drafted and will be released later this spring, Schiller said.

One of those recommendations is expected to end the practice of NPR reporters having “long-standing relationships with other news organizations,” Schiller said.

But she did not say whether NPR reporters Nina Totenberg, Mara Liasson and Cokie Roberts would be asked to sever their outside relationships. Liasson is a contributor to Fox News; Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News; and Totenberg is a panelist on the syndicated TV political commentary show “Inside Washington.”

When Hamrick suggested a “grandfather policy” for these journalists, Schiller said, “Could be.”

-- Heather Forsgren Weaver,