The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: NPR

Juan Williams: Muzzled, but still talking all the time

JuanWilliamsNPR Among the striking non sequiturs in Juan Williams' new book "Muzzled," besides the title, is the author's simultaneous embrace of Fox News and despair at what he says is a national discourse that has become overly ideological and coarse.

Those two ideas may coexist in the nearly 300 pages of Williams' book, but they will ring jarringly dissonant to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes watching Fox hosts batter anyone with an opposing (read: liberal) position.

Fox is the leading practitioner of the full-contact partisan commentary that's spreading across cable television (most notably to MSNBC) and, arguably, to the body politic. Williams won a $2-million contract with Fox over three years after being booted from NPR last fall.

He charges it is the public radio network that is a safe haven for liberal political cant.

I have a longer discussion of the Williams book in my On the Media column, but there wasn't room to mention all the disconnects there. One other misnomer from the onetime Washington Post journalist: In a section of "Muzzled" in which he discusses how much the public liked his work at National Public Radio, Williams notes that the "ombudswoman said she got more response to my work than to any other voice on the network." What he fails to write is that much of that public feedback was negative--complaints about Williams' screeds on Fox.

The book and the discussion accompanying it raise many questions. One for NPR: If Williams was as ineffectual and overly opinionated as you suggest, why did you keep him around for a decade? Perhaps it had something to do with the star status he had achieved in part, ahem, by appearing on Fox. For Williams: If NPR was as corrupt and politically correct as you now report, why didn't you quit before they fired you?

I tried to get Williams through a couple of Fox representatives this week. They did not respond to my inquiries.

--James Rainey

Photo: News analyst Juan Williams is now a commentator at Fox News, full time, after being ousted from his job at National Public Radio last fall. His new book, "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate," discusses the controversy and his thoughts on runaway political correctness. Credit: Richard Drew / AP

 

 


Tracing the showbiz roots of James O'Keefe's NPR sting

Okeefe The news media haven’t figured out what label to pin on James O’Keefe, the wily troublemaker whose hidden-camera sting could be the smoking gun that leads to a cutoff of further federal funding from NPR.

The press has resorted to all kinds of fanciful descriptions, dubbing O’Keefe a conservative activist, guerrilla documentarian, gonzo journalist, modern-day muckraker, independent filmmaker, citizen journalist, daredevil videographer and video sting impresario. Oh, and did we mention a sneaky little punk who cheats context to destroy careers?

Whatever you call him, he’s become the most controversial newsmaker in the land, having nabbed a top NPR fundraiser badmouthing the “tea party,” leading to the resignation of the public radio network’s chief executive. That undercover operation followed O’Keefe’s use of similar techniques to expose wrongdoing at the community group ACORN in a sting where he dressed as a pimp, accompanied by a young woman posing as one of his prostitutes.

O’Keefe, 26, has gone after liberal-oriented institutions but cites as a major influence the famed left-wing activist Saul Alinsky, saying he has adopted Alinsky’s strategy of making “the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” But perhaps O’Keefe’s biggest influences come from the la-la-liberal world of show business, especially the comedy playbook of Sacha Baron Cohen, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. One of O’Keefe’s partners in the NPR sting even went by the name of Simon Templar, which surely reveals a bit of showbiz inspiration, since Templar was the secret agent Roger Moore played in the ’60s TV series “The Saint,” a character, like O’Keefe, with a penchant for disguise.

Like O’Keefe, whose confederates in the NPR sting posed as members of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization, Cohen is a masterful provocateur. He made his name as a brash British comic on the TV series “Da Ali G Show,” where he posed as a gold-chain encrusted hip-hop dunce who goaded a variety of government officials and civic leaders into making all sorts of inappropriate remarks, terrified of appearing less than cool in front of such a cheeky hipster.

Prodded by some leading questioning on the show by Cohen, James Broadwater, a conservative Republican congressional candidate, was inspired to say that Jews would go to hell if they didn’t follow Christianity. After he was roundly criticized by various Jewish organizations, Broadwater demanded that the FCC exert more sway over “the liberal, anti-God media” and proclaimed himself a “proud friend of Israel.”

Cohen’s best-known character was Borat, a clueless, vaguely anti-Semitic visitor from Kazakhstan who ended up starring in “Borat,” a huge hit movie. In the film, Borat goaded boozy frat boys (playing themselves) into complaining that minorities ran America and persuaded the patrons of a redneck bar to happily croon “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”

Just as the Ali G and Borat characters were born out of the comic assumption that many people, especially in a famously decorous country like England, would feel obligated to play along with Cohen’s characters, no matter how clueless or bigoted, O’Keefe’s NPR sting was based on the expectation that an NPR fundraising executive, at lunch with two potential big-time donors from a Muslim Brotherhood-style organization, would indulge his guests by trashing the "tea party" and denying any Jewish influence over NPR coverage, noting that they “own newspapers obviously.”

Cohen’s victims, like O’Keefe’s, often claimed they were entrapped. But as Cohen told me several years ago, he simply created a character that would help expose people’s real behavior and beliefs, which is exactly what O’Keefe has attempted to do with his sting operations.

Colbert The whole art of pretending is a staple of modern political comedy. I doubt that O’Keefe would admit to watching Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” since conservatives view Stewart and Colbert as part of the despised liberal media, but both shows could have been a big influence on his theatrical escapades. When “The Daily Show” correspondents report a story, their segments are often set up as stings, as with a recent piece by Aasif Mandvi, who confronted the head of a Nevada union after he discovered, while interviewing men on a picket line, that the union was paying temporary workers nonunion wages to man a picket line demanding better pay from Wal-Mart.

Mandvi’s shock was almost certainly pure pretense, since “The Daily Show” clearly discovered the news long before they dispatched Mandvi to Nevada, but that sort of fiction is now built into the show’s comedy. The same goes for “The Colbert Report,” which casts Colbert as a Bill O’Reilly-style blowhard, allowing Colbert to satirize the way conservatives react to news of the day. You might also say that NPR was “Punk’d,” in memory of the Ashton Kutcher-hosted MTV series that used many of the same hidden-camera techniques seen in O’Keefe’s stings to play pranks on unsuspecting celebrities.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in media circles over the ethics of O’Keefe’s work, with all sorts of old-school journalists dinging him for using deception to get his scoops. Even though the damage is already done, his NPR story has taken some lumps, most surprisingly by Glenn Beck’s website, the Blaze, which revealed that O’Keefe, as he has done before, took the NPR fundraiser’s remarks out of context, using deceptive editing.

But why has the mainstream media treated O’Keefe’s provocative pranks as major news stories? After all, when Ali G and Borat used almost exactly the same technique to embarrass people, it was treated as clever satire. It just goes to show, as Jon Stewart has often said, that there’s little difference between real news and fake news anymore.

 --Patrick Goldstein

Photo: James O'Keefe. Credit: Bill Haber / Associated Press

Photo: Stephen Colbert. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


NPR video: So grainy, jumpy and heavily edited it must be true

O'Keefe A lot has been written about how selective editing of a secret video helped maximize the damage to NPR and its chief fundraiser, Ron Schiller, who resigned last week after sharply criticizing conservatives.

A full viewing of the uncut video showed that Schiller said plenty of mitigating things: He was once a Republican himself, for instance, and admired the party’s fiscal restraint. He also repeatedly declined to be drawn in by the video makers' provocations that, for example, conservatives should be banned from the public radio network.

The discrepancies between the full and edited videos only came to light after Schiller had been forced out. NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller quickly followed him out the door, with the network under considerable stress as Congress considers killing its federal funding.

So why did tricked-out video—much like the secret audio of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talking to a fake supporter—pack such a wallop?

Kevin Maness, assistant professor of communication studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, said the crude, homemade quality of secret "sting" videos enhances their currency with the general public.

“When a media outlet plays audio so bad that it needs subtitles or grainy video at strange angles, I would speculate that this carries a considerable amount of authority—not to mention emotional impact—for viewers,” Maness wrote me in an e-mail. “To me, the bad production quality says that this is super-secret stuff that could never have been learned through conventional means.”

Maness said guerrilla video/audio work for media outlets because they carry the patina of authenticity and authority. (What feels more real than direct recordings?) Television, radio and Web outlets can simply replay the recordings and seek out reaction and, voila, a provocative story is born.

Once the video and audio have been picked up by mainstream news outlets, the authenticity of the recordings only expands. “Now I may convince even a moderately skeptical person that my campaign is based on ‘fact,’ " Maness said.

The video stings jump into our consciousness much like a Hollywood blockbuster, Maness argues. Even critically reviled stinkers can make big money and get some traction on opening weekend, before anyone starts talking about the films' quality.

“If and when there's any follow-up, it will invariably be less splashy than the original story,” Maness said. And some media will be particularly loath to revisit the matter, if follow-up will make it clear that the recordings didn't get enough scrutiny before their initial airing.

Maness said the press should have learned by now to treat such videos gingerly. And the targets of the stings should pause before jumping too hastily into corrective action that may not be necessary.

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: James O'Keefe, whose Project Veritas arranged the secret video recording of NPR fundraising chief Ron Schiller. Schiller resigned after the video showed him criticizing some Republicans. Credit: Bill Haber / Associated Press


 

 


Calling Big Bird: Public TV and Radio fight for taxpayer support

VivianSchiller It’s hard these days to persuade Republican deficit hawks in Congress to preserve taxpayer funding for just about any discretionary program. But try saving public money for your organization when one of your key executives has just popped off against those same congressional Republicans.

That’s the nasty bind public TV and radio leaders find themselves in these days—fighting on Capitol Hill  for their $430 million in annual funding just as National Public Radio’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was caught in a video sting trashing…conservative Republicans. Schiller also said in the video (filmed surreptiously by faux potential donors) that NPR would be “better off in the long run” without federal support.

Schiller soon resigned, followed shortly by NPR’s chief executive, Vivian Schiller. (The two are not related.) Insiders hoped the resignations would tamp down calls for defunding, but congressional Republicans said they would not back down until all taxpayer support has been stripped away.

Many public radio employees expressed alarm at the prospective loss of funding. But a chief lobbyist for public television stations sounded a much more confident note—saying there is a quiet but significant group of Republicans who would come to the support of public broadcasting.

Jennifer Ferro, general manager of Santa Monica-based KCRW 89.9 FM, was on The Hill pushing for continued public funding Wednesday. While members of the California Democratic delegation remain supportive, she said, Republicans “don’t even want to talk about the issue and what we do. They are competing with each other to cut more and more.”

Ferro argues that the $1 million to $1.2 million KCRW receives each year is a modest investment that helps the station leverage a total budget of more than $13 million, most of it from listeners, corporate sponsors and foundations. “It’s seed money that we make go a long way,” she said.

If the station loses that government support and can’t raise the money elsewhere, it would likely have to cut its most costly operations—local news and information gathering, Ferro said. A couple of producers hired in November to create more local news stories would have to go, she said, as might some staffers who help create talk shows like “To the Point” and “Which Way, L.A.?” both popular mainstays, hosted by veteran newsman Warren Olney.

Ferro would like to see other public radio stations pushing harder to defend their work, which even many conservatives have conceded is more even-handed than critics contend. I wrote recently how San Gabriel Valley Rep. David Dreier shared his love of NPR and and said he considered public radio mostly fair-minded. Dreier, however, is for eventually pushing NPR off the public dole.

While Ferro expressed alarm, the man who represents public television affiliates before Congress told “The Hill” newspaper this week that he is confident.  “I do think if there ever comes an up-or-down vote on public broadcasting itself, we'll wind up with a bipartisan majority in favor of continuing our funding," said Patrick Butler, chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations.

While Butler’s organization insists supportive Republicans are out there, they sure aren't making a lot of noise about it. In most of heir recent mid-term election triumphs, conservatives promised to slash federal spending of all kinds.  House Republicans unanimously approved a measure that would “zero out” broadcasting dollars, though most Democrats and President Obama have left the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which supports both TV and radio) in their budget plans.

Perhaps it’s time for public broadcasting advocates—and I’m one of them—to consider alternatives. While the corporate bosses have taken on considerable baggage after the Schiller video (and the earlier controversial ousting of commentator Juan Williams from NPR) local public stations maintain tremendous followings.

If it comes to a final vote on funding, supporters should at least move to bifurcate the question and have lawmakers vote separately on public support of the troubled mother ship and on public support for local affiliates. I suspect it would be much harder for even budget hard-liners to vote against their local public radio and TV stations.

Members of Congress shoule recall a lesson from their own political careers: Polls constantly show the public loathes Congress in general, but the same voters keep sending their local lawmakers back to Washington, time after time.

Most voters might not love sending their tax dollars to the East Coast powers that run public broadcasting, but they’d hate to lose the local outlet that’s often their best hope of receiving quality news.

RELATED:

Vivian Schiller, NPR chief, resigns amid 'tea party' video fallout

NPR 'appalled' by its executive's 'tea party' remarks in video

 

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: National Public Radio CEO and president Vivian Schiller resigned March 9 after a furor set off by a sting against another NPR executive, who was shown on video disparaging conservatives. Schiller had previously worked at CNN and the New York Times. Credit: NPR


Joe Frank, public radio icon, might chuck the $8 cane

Joe_Frank_Story2I had lost track of Joe Frank, the groundbreaking storyteller who created dozens of riveting radio dramas for KCRW-FM (89.9) in the 1980s and '90s. That changed when I got an invitation from the station to see Frank perform at the Village, the  legendary West L.A. recording studio.

Although no one announced that the show would be a departure, it was. Never before had the mysterious performer so directly addressed his family life, particularly his relationship with a difficult mother, who died some years ago.

The crowd seemed to lap up the performance, which centered partly on how people disintegrate with age. But when I met him this week, Frank surprised me with his take on the show. He said he had been persuaded by a couple of friends to deal with the more personal material, but he ended up hating the piece.

“In live performance you always make mistakes. What you do is imperfect," he said. "Usually I wear shades and a hat. But that seemed entirely inappropriate given the kind of material I was doing, which was very honest, very open. Which I also hated. What I do is usually surreal.

“I like going further out, expanding the imaginations of people. There are lots of people who tell stories about themselves.”

Although he intends to keep his own story out of future performances, Frank had decided he would share more about himself in our interview, which I also detailed in my On the Media column. He talked at length about his own aging.

“Suddenly I find myself an old man with a cane,” said Frank, 72, who has struggled through a series of illnesses and recently recovered from pneumonia.  “And in my interior life I feel so much younger. There seems to be a real disconnect with this old, deteriorating, decrepit body ... which is carrying my brain and heart around in it.”

Franks said he hates when people defer to him, offering an arm or holding open a door, even if he knows they mean well. His hands shake as a result of medication he takes. The need to hold a glass aloft for a toast at a party, or to eat with people he doesn't know well, can cause a moment of panic.

But then Frank wonders if he simply needs to embrace the changes.

“Maybe I can transcend it by taking advantage of it, by making it into a persona,” he said. He muses about chucking the cane he bought for $8 at CVS. “I could have a cane with a wolf’s head and ruby eyes. I could wear a white suit or some bizarre getup, a hip-hop kind of hat and always a pair of sunglasses. And then instead of me being invisible maybe they would see this old man and I would, as you say, own it.”

In some of his old radio pieces that conveyed a good dose of anxiety and despair, Frank would edit in a teacher speaking about equanimity, a respite from the prevailing darkness. I wondered if he had ever tried meditation, a break from “the monkey mind.”

“I once had a friend come over to my house and urged me to meditate with him,” Frank said. “He kneeled down on the floor of my house and I kneeled down beside him and focused my mind on a word or something. And I was there for maybe 30 seconds when I felt so ridiculous and so stupid and thought it was so absurd that I got up.”

I couldn’t resist: “So you gave him a full 30 seconds?”

“I did,” Frank said, laughing. “I might have even given him a minute or a minute and a half. But certainly not more than that.”

I told Frank he sounded a little like Woody Allen’s character in “Annie Hall.” Alvy Singer memorably celebrated the fact that most people are only “miserable,” knowing they could be among the “horrible,” those who are crippled or dying.

But Frank told me he really does have a little more perspective than that. “I can’t say I am miserable because I have a body of work behind me. I have a considerable following,” he said, adding: “You can’t be unhappy. It’s not fair under these circumstances. So even though I may be depressed a fair amount of the time I am still grateful for what I’ve got.”

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Joe Frank made more than 200 radio dramas over a couple of decades at KCRW-FM. He recently has expanded to Facebook and done a limited number of live performances. Credit: joefrank.com

 


NPR: Juan Williams and Ellen Weiss are gone and nobody gains

NPREllenWeiss A little more than two months after it bounced commentator Juan Williams, NPR this week forced out Ellen Weiss, the news executive who let Williams go.

Neither departure makes a lot of sense. Williams had to go, we are told, because his opinions were too opinionated. NPR ethics guidelines prohibit employees, even ones hired as analysts, from giving personal opinions.

Weiss got pushed toward resignation for exuberantly enforcing that no-opinion policy. We are told she had to go, not because the Williams termination was wrong, but because it was executed too hastily.

That seems like a lot of personnel movement in response to very little actual harm, at a news organization that is otherwise gaining in credibility and audience size.

The outcome has left just about everyone unhappy and brought a heap of unwanted attention to NPR, just as Republicans in Congress are looking for places to slash the federal budget.

As I wrote in my On the Media column, I think the radio network delivers a solid product that usually refutes charges of liberal bias. But I also suggested it may be time for a new kind of affirmative action, to assure more conservative representation on NPR’s news staff.

If NPR has a great defense of the Williams or Weiss terminations, the network's executives are not making it this week. A review by the law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges was supposed to provide some clarity.

But that review was meant to inform the board of directors. Any chance the public will ever see it is  virtually nonexistent. It does not even exist in written form, according to a report on NPR's website. Even if there was a Weil document, not many employers want to rush private personnel matters into public view.

That leaves a lot of unanswered questions:  Was Williams really warned on multiple previous occasions about letting his personal views hang out in public? How many times was he put on notice, and how did he respond?

As to Weiss, who worked at NPR her entire adult life: Did she really get in such hot water for merely moving Williams out too quickly? NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller approved the Williams axing, so doesn’t that mean Weiss was not ultimately responsible for the firing? Or is there something more?

Williams has landed on his feet. His previous part-time employer, Fox News, immediately gave him a full-time job as an analyst and a three-year contract reportedly valued at $2 million. In several appearances on the cable outlet Thursday, he went about bashing NPR as an unreformed liberal monolith. He cheered Weiss’ departure.

In an interview shortly after her resignation this week, Weiss told me she had no idea what her next job would be. She declined to say anything about Williams, 56.

A mixture of reactions flashed through the radio network's Washington headquarters. Several employees told me how much they admired Weiss, 51. They called the senior vice president for news the glue that held the operation together. Others pictured her as a divisive figure who played favorites.

Some NPR employees questioned whether she had paid her dues working as a producer in the studio rather than in the field as a reporter.

Adam Davidson, co-founder of “Planet Money,” the award-winning financial program, described Weiss as a strong leader with a great eye for news and ear for storytelling.

“She knows the intricacies of how things get done in the public radio world. She knows the craft of radio really well,” said Davidson. “She knows how to put together a great narrative. And then, on top of that, she has that big, broad vision of where things need to go in the larger media landscape. I’m not saying you can’t replace her, but she had an incredibly unique set of skills.”

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Ellen Weiss resigned this week as senior vice president for news at NPR, following a critical report about the firing last year of commentator Juan Williams. Weiss spent nearly 29 years at the radio network. Credit: NPR

 


Ellen Weiss' first comments on her NPR resignation

Ellen Weiss called her decision to step down Thursday as the top news executive at National Public Radio "extremely hard" but declined to criticize NPR or back away from her decision to fire Juan Williams, the action that led to her downfall.

Weiss, 51, would have hit her 29th anniversary at NPR next month, but she agreed to leave her post under pressure after an internal investigation found that Williams' firing had been hasty and not well executed.

Weiss stressed that she did not make the decision to fire Williams alone. She acted after the comentator went on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" and described his occasional discomfort flying with people in "Muslim garb." NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller, who remains in her job, approved the firing.

"What I would say is that the decision to terminate the Juan Williams contract by NPR, of which I was a participant, was based on the highest journalistic standards," Weiss said Thursday.

The NPR ethics code requires employees to withhold their personal opinions both on the radio network and in other public apperances. But critics have noted that Williams, and other NPR personalities, were routinely asked to give opinions as guest commentators on cable television.

Speaking haltingly and with obvious emotion, Weiss said she was proud of her long tenure, which included 12 years as executive producer of the news magazine "All Things Considered." She said she thought she had prepared NPR well for the future.

Meeting with a small group of confidantes inside the network Thursday, Weiss said she previously had advised others that any organization had to prepare for the loss of the boss.

"If you get hit by a bus, you want to make sure you have the right people in place, you want to make sure it doesn't end," Weiss said. "I feel I have an incredible newsroom in place, with fantastic leadership and unbelievably courageous reporters. I am glad I followed my own advice. Because the bus came, and I am gone.”

Weiss said she had no plans yet for the future but that she would continue to "love and admire NPR." She added: "It's an incredible institution that is way bigger than one individual."

Weiss said she could not say whether her departure would help clear the air and deflate political pressure to cut NPR's government funding, but she hoped it would.

"It was extremely hard," she said of her decision, finalized with NPR chief Schiller on Thursday. "It was not the hardest decision I ever made in my life but certainly one of the hardest."

-- James Rainey

twitter.com/latimesrainey

 


Roger Ailes of Fox News: 'Nazis' are running public radio [Updated]

Roger Ailes Anyone who has watched Fox News personality Glenn Beck with any regularity has heard warnings of an end of life in America as we know it, specifically a Nazi-style takeover of the government. That could be the eventual endgame, according to Beck, if the big-government policies of the Obama administration go unchecked.

But in an interview this week, it was Beck's Fox News boss, Roger Ailes, embracing the Nazi rhetoric. And this time the target was National Public Radio. Speaking to the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz, Ailes said NPR's bosses revealed their fascist stripes when they dismissed commentator Juan Williams.

"They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude," Ailes told Kurtz. "They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don't want any other point of view. They don't even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda. They are basically Air America with government funding to keep them alive."

The left-leaning media watchdog group, Media Matters, was first to note how Ailes seemed to be echoing Beck, or vice versa. Media Matters charged: "Fox's 'Nazi' rhetoric also comes straight from the top."

The group's online critique went on to cite the many times Beck has invoked the Nazis in taking on his liberal foes. In one instance last year, the report noted, Beck compared Obama's call for the expansion of the foreign service via a "civilian national security force" to Hitler's SS and brownshirts.

Although Beck and some other Fox hosts have leaned heavily on analogies to fascism lately, other media figures have invoked the same super-heated rhetoric in the past. Back in the 1990s, it was CNN founder Ted Turner who compared Rupert Murdoch to Hitler. Murdoch leads News Corp., which owns Fox News.

[For the record at 10 p.m.: A previous version of this post referred to the head of News Corp. as Roger Murdoch. It is Rupert Murdoch.]

After NPR chief Vivian Schiller spoke Thursday afternoon at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, an audience member asked what Ailes might have meant to accomplish with his "Nazi" remark.

"I have no earthly idea," Schiller said. "I don't know what he was getting at. It was quite baffling to me to be perfectly honest. I think his words really speak for themselves."

Ailes apologized Thursday to the Anti-Defamation League, saying he had been "ad-libbing and should not have chosen that word."

He had not, however, apologized to NPR.

-- James Rainey
Twitter.com/latimesrainey

Photo: Roger Ailes, chief executive of Fox News. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press


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