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NPR president's resignation fuels foes of public broadcasting funding

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— Vivian Schiller's resignation as president and chief executive of National Public Radio comes at a perilous time for the public broadcaster, as Republicans in Congress press ahead with plans to slice its federal lifeline.

Schiller's exit on Wednesday came a day after a video surfaced in which a former NPR fundraising executive derided the "tea party" movement as a collection of "gun-toting" racists and "fundamentalist Christians" who have "hijacked" the Republican Party. He also was quoted saying that the organization could survive "in the long run" without government help.

Schiller's departure was, in part, an attempt to show congressional budget-cutters that NPR could hold itself accountable. She met with NPR's board of directors Tuesday evening and said that she would step down if the board felt that she could no longer effectively lead the organization. The board decided that Schiller, who joined NPR just two years ago from the New York Times Co., had to go.

"The board accepted Vivian's resignation with understanding, genuine regret and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years," board Chairman Dave Edwards said in a statement Wednesday.

The board appointed NPR's general counsel, Joyce Slocum, to replace Schiller on an interim basis while it forms a committee to search for a new CEO.

The fallout from recent events has given fresh momentum to efforts on Capitol Hill to strip NPR of financial support.

"Our concern is not about any one person at NPR, rather it's about millions of taxpayers," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said after Schiller's resignation. "NPR has admitted that they don't need taxpayer subsidies to thrive, and at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them."

White House spokesman Jay Carney Wednesday said the president disagrees, calling federal support for public broadcasting "worthwhile and important priorities."

Schiller's tenure grew rocky last summer, when NPR quickly parted ways with longtime political analyst Juan Williams after Williams told Fox News that he was apprehensive when he saw Muslims in traditional garb on airplanes. His ouster became a rallying point for conservatives — and gave rise to the current drive to de-fund the broadcaster. NPR's top news executive, Ellen Weiss, resigned in January as a result of the furor.

"We handled the situation badly," Schiller said at an event at the National Press Club in Washington Monday. " "I made some mistakes. The key thing now is to fix those mistakes."

She also said losing government funds "would have a profound impact, we believe, on our ability — public broadcasting's ability — to deliver news and information."

The video released Tuesday of a surreptitious "sting" by activist James O'Keefe, in which former NPR executive Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian) met with two men masquerading as Muslim political operatives, seemingly confirmed some conservatives' worst fears about what they view as NPR's journalistic bias.

In the video, Ron Schiller is seen calling tea party supporters "racist," "xenophobic" and "Islamophobic." NPR swiftly distanced themselves from the remarks, saying they did not reflect the organization's values.

Ron Schiller had already planned to leave NPR for a job with the Aspen Institute, but resigned Tuesday anyway. On Wednesday, the institute said that Schiller would not be joining it.

The federal government does not directly fund NPR. Instead it helps support the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which then hands out the money to local public TV and radio stations for use to buy NPR programming.

In February, the House voted to eliminate the $451 million the corporation receives in federal funds for 2011. A final budget is still being negotiated by House and Senate leaders.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who is spearheading the de-funding effort, said Vivian Schiller's exit suggested that NPR was suffering from an "internal meltdown."

"It's time for Big Bird to earn his wings and learn to fly on his own," Lamborn said in a statement.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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