NPR Blues

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Vivian Schiller, the chief operating officer of National Public Radio, was just dismissed by NPR’s board of directors. The firing comes a day after news broke that the president of the NPR Foundation and senior vice president for development Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian) had been caught on videotape at Café Milano in Georgetown disparaging conservatives and Republicans. NPR moved quickly to repudiate Ron Schiller’s remarks and last night announced that he had been removed from his position. The removal was only a small adjustment of dates since he had announced several weeks ago that he was resigning to take another position. The NPR board apparently decided it was too little too late and threw Vivian overboard as well.

The story has political traction because of efforts in the House of Representatives to cut off federal funding for NPR, and one of Ron Schiller’s ill-judged remarks was his declaration that NPR would in fact “be better off in the long run without federal funding.” The release of the two-hour unedited videotape by the group Project Veritas (headed by James O’Keefe) as well as an 11-minute collection of excerpts, fueled the Congressional calls to de-fund NPR.

But I want to focus on one particular part of the videotaped exchange between Ron Schiller and the two men he thought were representatives of the “Muslim Education Action Center.” The two men, calling themselves Amir Malik and Ibrahim Kasaam (their real names are Shaughn Adeleye and Simon Templar) had arranged the meeting under the pretense that their group, a supposed front for the Muslim Brotherhood, wanted to make a $5-million donation to NPR. At 3:59 in the shorter video, one of the men asks Schiller, “What is your opinion of that whole situation that is going on in Egypt?”

Schiller gives an oddly round-about answer (4:05-6:17), as follows:

Well, to me, this is representative of the thing that I, I guess, I am most disturbed by and disappointed by in this country. Which is that the educated, the so-called elite in this country, is too small a percentage of the population, so that you have this very large uneducated part of the population that, that carries these ideas. It is much more about anti-intellectualism than it is about a political… As a university also by definition is considered in this country to be liberal even though it is not at all liberal. It’s liberal because it’s intellectual; pursuit of knowledge and that is traditionally something that Democrats have funded and Republicans have not funded.

This is, of course, improvised speech with the fragmented grammar and loose sequencing that happens when someone is thinking aloud. But what it lacks in tight organization it more than makes up in authenticity. I don’t doubt that Mr. Schiller really is “disturbed and disappointed” that America’s “so-called elite” isn’t a bigger percentage of the population.

But what does he mean by the “so-called elite”? The term could in some contexts refer to the very wealthy, or to people well-established in privileged social positions. Or it could refer to those who have purchase on the levers of political power. Or to some combination of these. But that doesn’t seem to be what was on Schiller’s mind. For one thing, he probably wouldn’t be lamenting that those “elites” are “too small a percentage of the population.” But we don’t have to guess. The “elite” in Schiller’s view are those who have gained a university education, in contrast to the “uneducated,” anti-intellectual “part of the population.” It is an elite that isn’t comfortable with calling itself an elite; it just knows that it is.

I see no reason to get in high dudgeon over this, but it does strike me that Schiller is giving voice to a self-flattery mythology, and one that is easily recognizable. It is the mythology that intellectuals are, by their nature, “liberal,” and that conservatives are by their nature anti-intellectual, opposed to the “pursuit of knowledge,” ignorant of the larger world (e.g. Egypt), and disinclined to support the institutions of higher learning. This is a thesis, and it is either true or false. It happens to be false, and its falsity is pretty much manifest as soon as it is stated plainly.

Many millions of Americans who consider themselves conservative read books; many closely follow sophisticated journals of intellectual and cultural opinion. They support the arts. They engage in philanthropy at a much higher rate than liberals. (Conservative households are reported to give to charity on average 30 percent more than liberal households. See Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares.) I’ll venture a guess that if you go looking for Americans who have a good command of American history from the Revolution through the Civil Rights movement, you’ll find far more conservatives than liberals—but therein lies a good research project. The problem is that for Schiller and the self-anointed “elite” he presumes to speak for, these conservatives are worse than invisible. They are non-existent. In Schiller’s worldview, there is the distressingly inadequate number of smart, educated people who have been to college and who make up the target demographic of NPR, and then there are the ignorant masses who, one supposes, watch Fox News and believe cavemen walked around with dinosaurs. Schiller at one point offers his characterization of the Tea Party as comprised of “seriously racist, racist people,” who are “white, Middle-American gun-toting,” “xenophobic,” and “a weird Evangelical kind of move.”

Presumably Schiller doesn’t apply this degree of demonization to all conservatives, but then again, he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any other kind, so we don’t know for sure. He lives in a world without George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, Peter Viereck, Eric Voegelin, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, Christopher Dawson, William F. Buckley, and Forrest McDonald, among others. The conservative intellectual tradition is, in this perspective, a nullity. In its stead stands the image of a Tea Party protester in a clown costume.

Schiller presents his views in what sounds like earnest sincerity. He may be pitching NPR to those he imagines are would-be donors and trimming his sails accordingly, but he isn’t inventing this caricature wholly for their benefit. He is merely offering a condensation of an already well-etched picture of how America works. He shows no trace of apprehension about presenting NPR as a proper destination of funding from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose own fundamentalism, appeals to ignorance, and gun-toting propensities seem not to trigger the same kind of aversion that he has to Tea Partiers.

For his untimely candor, NPR has repudiated him, and his senior colleague Vivian Schiller has been dispatched too. Her stumble in the Juan Williams affair was bad enough, but now it is nearly impossible for NPR to portray itself as anything but an agenda-driven mouthpiece of the political left. To recover a plausible claim of journalistic independence after this will take new management, strenuous new programming, and a lot of time.

Is it even possible that NPR could succeed at such re-positioning? The deeper problem is that Ron Schiller’s views really do reflect the self-image of an established elite. He merely got caught on videotape and in a context where his statements intertwined with the public positioning of NPR. But he didn’t say anything that I haven’t heard dozens of times before in idle conversation with academics at conferences and over the dinner table among those who, knowing only that I am an academic anthropologist, assumed that it was safe to let loose with invective against the stupid masses. I never turn away such confidences or offer any hint of demur. It is good to know what people really think.

Ron Schiller’s lament that “the so-called elite in this country is too small a percentage of the population,” does throw some light on President Obama’s determination to vastly increase the percentage of Americans who attend college. Regardless of what it might do for the economy, it could prove a useful incubator of political loyalties. Mr. Schiller’s indiscretions also make me wonder about that argument—frequently averred in the comments section of my Chronicle articles—that students are basically immune to political coaxing in the classroom. Mr. Schiller’s statements on this are too jumbled to make out exactly what he thinks, but he’s confident that there is a basic affinity between getting a university education and ending up with an enlightened embrace of the Democratic Party. 

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