I really don’t want to beat the NPR/Ron Schiller affair to death, but I guess I’m going to anyway. I continue to think that Schiller flatly did nothing wrong — at least, nothing wrong in the actionable, firing sense of the word — and I continue to be bugged by the fact that virtually nobody seems to agree with me about this. Even reporters who have finally listened to James O’Keefe’s entire sting video, and now understand just how deceptively it was edited, always add a “to be sure” like this one from Time’s James Poniewozik:
Whether you agree with [Schiller] or believe he’s lumping economic, small-government Tea Partiers with Evangelical Christians, the fact that he’s offering this political speech while representing NPR would probably be enough to get him in hot water.
Poniewozik is talking about Schiller’s infamous statement that tea partiers tend to be racist and xenophobic. But here’s what Schiller said right before that:
Now I’ll talk personally, as opposed to wearing my NPR hat….I grew up a Republican, and am proud of that, even though I’ve voted mostly Democratic lately. I like the Republican Party in terms of fiscal conservatism and the fact that the Republican Party of old really believed that government has no role in personal lives, in family lives, and that government is really about other things.
So here’s my question: why is nobody outraged about this? An NPR executive was caught on video saying that he admires the Republican Party’s fiscal conservatism! He’s obviously taking sides here and implicitly criticizing Democrats for fiscal profligacy. Is that allowable behavior?
Look: it’s either a fireable offense for an NPR executive to take a political position in a private conversation or it’s not. This isn’t a question of whether Schiller was right or wrong. As it happens, I think he’s wrong on both counts: I don’t think racism is a primary motivating force behind the tea party movement, and I obviously don’t believe the Republican Party is even remotely fiscally prudent. Still, there’s plenty of survey evidence suggesting that tea partiers, as Jon Chait puts it, “hold distinctly reactionary views on racial issues,” just as there’s an argument to be made that Republicans are more fiscally prudent than Democrats. Neither view is outrageous enough to get you banned from polite society, nor should they be.
So again: it’s not really a matter of the context of Schiller’s remarks (though his caveat about taking off his “NPR hat” is obviously relevant). Nor is it a matter of whether it’s politically counterproductive to say the things Schiller did (it probably is). Rather, it’s a matter of whether an NPR fundraising executive is allowed to express provocative but widely held political opinions in a private conversation. If he’s not, then we should be just as outraged about his admiration of the GOP’s fiscal conservatism as we are about his belief that tea partiers are xenophobic.