As her term wraps up, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard explored the controversial $1.8 million donation from leftist hedge-fund manager George Soros and his Open Society Institute, and how NPR tried to talk its way out of the idea that it was a liberal media outlet taking money from a major liberal agitator of means. Shepard reported executives there determined “it would be wrong to turn down money because of someone's political beliefs and based on how it looked.”
"OSI Foundations met NPR's qualification criteria for funders," said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's spokesperson. "They understood and accepted our terms – chief among them the prohibition of any effort to influence editorial decision making. Our acceptance of the grant was based on principles of independence and fairness, and we stand by it."
Near the end of the article, Shepard acknowledged that conservatives find this donation highly suspicious, both because of the political record of Soros, and his added million-dollar support of the left-wing watchdog group Media Matters, now devoted to “sabotage” against Fox News. MRC’s Dan Gainor insisted there will be no investigative journalism of Soros at NPR:
"NPR took $1.8 million from a man who also spent $27 million trying desperately to unseat President George W. Bush in 2004, yet NPR still claims to be neutral," said Dan Gainor of the conservative Media Research Center. "Conservatives know that isn't true. The Soros money just proved it. Will NPR deploy some of that new-found wealth to investigate Soros' global empire? No, he signs the checks."
The contribution did raise eyebrows inside the NPR family:
Some stations have expressed concerns about taking money from someone labeled a left-wing philanthropist. Chief among them was WBEZ in Chicago, one of the biggest public radio stations in the country.
When NPR invited stations to apply, several in Illinois were excited about the project, said WBEZ President and CEO Torey Malatia. But WBEZ wanted no part. Other stations in Illinois applied as a consortium but did not get funding in the pilot project.
"The last thing I wanted to do is hurt my colleagues," said Malatia. "But this is a very clear crossing of the line, at least in perception even if it doesn't happen in reality. Perception is our currency. It's what you talk about during pledge drives. It's the emotional trigger you hope can be pulled when you are talking with philanthropists about your independence. Perception is just as important as reality. It doesn't matter how many controls you have. The minute you have to explain away the problem, you are in trouble."
On the other hand, Soros' foundations gave 34 grants from 1997 to 2010 to local NPR member stations and specific programs that have totaled nearly $3.4-million, said the foundations' Archuleta. Recipients included WNYC and Minnesota Public Radio.
Former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller was, unsurprisingly, not just the one who told Juan Williams he should save his Islamophobia for a therapist, but also the one who thought the Soros money was a wonderful idea:
At a staff meeting last fall, an editor asked former CEO Vivian Schiller, who was involved in getting the money, about the public perception created by NPR's taking money from Soros' foundation. In response, Schiller cited the "firewall" between donors and the newsroom.
The Open Society people "understand that we are completely independent," said Schiller. "They will hear the stories on the air along with everyone else. We will have no editorial dialogue with them about these stories. There is a complete separation."
Schiller said she was not troubled about perception and insisted NPR shouldn't have a political litmus for funders.
"I don't know that we need to draw lines saying 'If you have a point of view you can't give us money,'" said Schiller. "Where we draw a line is, 'You cannot give us money to pursue your agenda.'"
On one level, Schiller was right. Many of NPR's donors have long records of left-wing philanthropy, like the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and that's never been an appearance problem for NPR (beyond conservatives who know about activist foundations). But Soros really is in another category, as a controversial political actor spending many millions to defeat Republicans and pushing controversial ideas like gay marriage and drug legalization. The idea that these people really didn't think this affected their public image at all are either extremely deluded about their own objectivity or deeply know they're Liberalism Incorporated and think they should just be aggressive and ignore conservative critics. That second mental approach does tend to sum up many NPR hosts and reporters.