“Follow the Money”

Money is at the bottom of many of today’s major stories, writes Eric Alterman.

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National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller, above, resigned this week over a fundraising scandal. NPR’s desperation to raise money made it vulnerable, and this desperation was likely inspired by the possibility of the Republicans defunding NPR in the current congressional session. (Flickr/<a href= The Aspen Institute)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller, above, resigned this week over a fundraising scandal. NPR’s desperation to raise money made it vulnerable, and this desperation was likely inspired by the possibility of the Republicans defunding NPR in the current congressional session. (Flickr/ The Aspen Institute)

Deep Throat’s advice worked for Woodward and Bernstein, and it remains useful today. Take a look at the major stories of the day. Most often, they are portrayed in the media as clashes of personality first and ideology second. But almost always, they are, at bottom, about money.

The “resignation” of National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller is being played by the avatars of conventional wisdom as the result of her inability to rein in the crazy liberalism of the place. Well, not so much. In the first place, the refs have worked NPR so effectively that it feels compelled to include the views of certified lunatic David Horowitz in an obituary of leftist historian Howard Zinn.

It’s true that NPR’s firings of both Juan Williams and Ellen Weiss were mishandled. But the real reason that Schiller had to go was the manner in which her vice president for fundraising, Ron Schiller (no relation), felt a need to suck up to what he thought were some silly Arab moneymen claiming affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, who thought that perhaps American Jews exercised an unseemly degree of influence over how Israel and the Palestinians are portrayed in the media. (Naturally, the Anti-Defamation League is getting into the act.) He also had some unfriendly views to offer about the Tea Party.

Mr. Schiller surely deserves to be fired, both for failing to do any due diligence on the people pretending to be considering a $4 million donation and his inability to recognize the notorious scam artist James O’Keefe as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

So it was NPR’s desperation to raise money that made it so vulnerable. And this desperation was likely inspired by the possibility of the Republicans defunding NPR in the current congressional session. Listen to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA):

As we continue to identify ways to cut spending and save valuable resources, this disturbing video makes clear that taxpayer dollars should no longer be appropriated to NPR. Not only have top public broadcasting executives finally admitted that they do not need taxpayer dollars to survive, it is also clear that without federal funds, public broadcasting stations self-admittedly would become eligible for more private dollars on top of the multimillion dollar donations these organizations already receive.

In fact, the minuscule amount of funding public radio in the United States receives—U.S. taxpayers do not even pay 1/100th of what British citizens pay for the BBC—is barely noticeable in the NPR programming budget. But it is absolutely crucial to the 900 public radio stations that depend on their Community Service Grants to survive.

Thing is, nobody is paying much attention to the fact that however silly this money man may have been, his comments reflected not at all on NPR’s news reporting. On the other hand, Mr. O’Keefe has repeatedly been revealed to be dishonest—even criminal—in his dealings with those organizations he seeks to undermine. One mainstream media organization after another allowed themselves to be manipulated by O’Keefe and his patron, Andrew Breitbart, and yet again his version of events is being treated as a cause for panic at NPR and celebration by its adversaries.

This is not to say Ms. Schiller should not have ultimately been shown the door. Her handling of the firings of both Williams and Weiss do not inspire confidence in her leadership. Still, the manner in which she departed so quickly can only whet the appetites of other nefarious players in this game to increase the stakes next time. And that means no honest player in the media world is safe.

On the other end of the spectrum, some reporters think it significant that New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told the truth about Fox News and is sticking to his story. Keller described Fox’s “fair and balanced” slogan as "cynical.”

In fact, it’s not just cynical. It’s comical. Anyone who thinks that the lies that pass for news on Fox—and are repeatedly demonstrated as such—are there accidentally is fooling themselves and would have to be stupid. People watch Fox because they want to be lied to. (Or else because they think palm trees really do grow in Madison in winter.)

Howard Kurtz isn’t the only one ginning up this phony controversy. But Kurtz reports that The New Republic’s Gabriel Sherman—who happens to be writing a book about Fox at the moment—wonders if these “comments trashing Fox News will hurt his reporters’ ability to cover Fox and Ailes."

What neither one seems to be willing to address is whether Keller’s comments are true. This is of course a victory for Fox, which is less a news station than a purposeful political propaganda operation. So why are journalists so reluctant to criticize it?

Could it be that Fox is earning runaway profits and even offers journalists multimillion-dollar contracts when they say stupid things about being scared of Muslims? Why else in the world would, say, alleged actual journalists such as Bret Baier and Shepard Smith want to be associated with a network that regularly and purposely lies for partisan purposes? Are they unemployable everywhere else?

Corruption takes many forms and does not only affect right-wing propaganda networks. Turns out MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” could not bother itself to let its viewers know that it enjoyed a sponsorship deal worth an estimated $10 million when co-host Mica Brzezinski did a friendly seven-minute interview with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary.

Of course MSNBC is not nearly as unreliable a purveyor of news as Fox—even during the 15 conservative-oriented hours it broadcasts every week on “Morning Joe.” But its unwillingness to play it straight with its viewers will invite enemies of prime-time liberal broadcasting to smear it as no better than Fox. And why? Does Starbucks’s cash come with a clause that forbids disclosure when their CEO is interviewed on the air? And if so, is the money really worth the damage that does to MSNBC’s reputation?

Speaking of ruined reputations, another story in the news this week reflects how far people are willing to go to endanger a lifetime’s worth of work for a few quick bucks. It turns out respected scholars, including Harvard’s Joseph Nye, Rutgers’s Benjamin Barber, and the London School of Economics’s Anthony Giddens, had all been in the pay of the Qaddafi family—through a cut-out consulting firm—while writing friendly articles about that dictatorial regime and its alleged potential for reform and renewal.

For instance, Nye wrote that Qaddafi “seems to have become interested in soft power—the art of projecting influence through attraction rather than corrosion.” Giddens opined that Libya under Qaddafi could become “the Norway of North Africa.” And Barber mused that it could become “the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government.”

What connects all these stories is the degree to which people are willing to debase themselves for cash. It happens to both liberals and conservatives. But because only the right has a national news network, together with an entire media borg to not only set the liberals up but drive the national news conversation when it happens, it’s often only one side that ends up paying for it when they get caught—even if nobody’s sure exactly what they did wrong.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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