Monday, March 14, 2011

Truth AND consequences

By Don Klein

Remember the popular radio program called "Truth or Consequences." It started in 1940 and ran for 17 years and was succeeded by a television version that continued for many more years.

It had a simple format: a contestant was asked a question and if answered incorrectly, as most were, they were require to perform a zany stunt for the benefit of the studio and at-home audience.

If that game existed in today’s combative political environment the show would be called "Truth and Consequences." The "or" would we replaced by "and" since telling the truth these days can get people fired.

I always thought that telling the truth was the best policy. That you could not get into trouble if you were honest in expressing your heartfelt thoughts. Recent events in public broadcasting have proven those sophomoric beliefs not to be valid anymore.

Thinking back to last October when Juan Williams was sacked by NPR for claiming that the sight of Muslims waiting to get on the same plane he was about to board made him queasy.

He was talking on Fox News to Bill O’Reilly when he said, "... I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Williams added he did not blame all Muslims for "extremists," saying Christians shouldn't be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Nevertheless NPR brass sent Williams packing claiming his remarks "were inconsistent with (its) editorial standards and practices." Many people disagreed with that decision because Williams was not a reporter but an analyst and further he was not talking on NPR but on another network. The difference is that reporters are not expected to express opinions, but analyst are.

In any case many people have the same feelings about Muslims in public transportation not because of bigotry but because the overwhelming majority of recent terror aimed at the US was by Muslim radicals. The fear may be unfair and disproportionate but it is a real and understandable component of current thought.

So Williams, exercising his analyst’s right to free speech, spoke the unvarnished truth about his feelings which I fear represented the majority thought in America and lost his job. He was immediately picked up by Fox receiving a more lucrative contract than he had at NPR.

Let us fast forward to a more recent occasion when another employee of NPR spoke the truth and ended up without a job. Ronald Schiller, a high ranking fund raiser for NPR was lured into a luncheon meeting with a group posing as representatives of the non-existent Muslim Education Action Center Trust. The bait was a phony donation of $5 million.

The set up was arranged by James O’Keefe, the Republican provocateur, who trapped Acorn last year in embarrassing comments aimed at disqualifying them from receiving federal funding. Schiller foolishly spoke openly to the people he thought were Muslim philanthropists.

He said the Republican Party had been "hijacked" by the Tea Party and that many of the Tea Party supporters were "white middle Americans...gun-toting racist people." Hidden cameras videotaped his remarks and when released it gave the GOP majority in the House of Representatives additional fire to justify cutting off federal funding to public radio and television on the grounds they are politically biased.

What the Republicans have overlooked in their zeal to paint NPR as hostile to them is that Schiller had absolutely no ability to influence editorial content of the networks. The GOP was arguing against NPR’s alleged editorial prejudice and using Schiller, a non-editorial functionary, as an example of that so-called bias.

It was as if you disputed a large corporation’s stance on truck traffic in residential neighborhoods and quoted negative remarks of the plant’s gate guards. The man at the gate had no authority or responsibility over truck routes.

In Schiller’s case he was wrong to express such personal opinions to a group of people he did not know and never met before. He was guilty of poor judgment, but he told the truth about the Republicans and the Tea Party. He has since left the employ of NPR.

The facts that enrage Republican critics is that NPR is scrupulously fair in its news coverage and that fair coverage reflects poorly on the GOP, a party that is doing everything to undermine established American policies that stand in the way of their obvious war against the middle class.

The money saved by eliminating NPR funding of $445 million for 2013 is minuscule in the face of the horrendous deficit the nation faces. The Republicans have not touched gigantic budget items like tax cuts for the rich, or subsidies for big oil and big agriculture or defense cuts, but have focused on smaller items that provide them with control over sources that work to the natural benefit of the Democrats.

In an effort to preserve its federal award which goes to 1,300 public radio and television stations throughout the country, NPR has forced those who openly speak the truth to the detriment of the Republicans and Muslims off their payroll.

It is a sad state of affairs when telling the truth has such negative consequences.