The ongoing budget crisis and accusations of liberal bias have fueled renewed calls by conservative politicians for an end to NPR's public funding. The public broadcaster's opponents gained further ammunition last week when conservative activist James O'Keefe released a hidden-camera video of NPR Foundation President Ron Schiller apparently saying that NPR might be better off without federal funding and seeming to make disparaging remarks about the Tea Party movement. Subsequent independent analysis of the raw footage showed that Schiller's remarks were taken out of context and were not as damning as originally presented. Nevertheless Schiller, who had the previous week already announced plans to leave NPR for another job, departed immediately and issued an apology saying this statements were "counter to NPR's values." The NPR board also asked president and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller) to step down.
Conservatives have long complained that the public broadcaster has a liberal bias, a charge NPR's defenders have denied. In at least one regard, however, NPR's board and fundraisers have, as a whole, shown a marked lean to the left in recent years: political contributions. A review of campaign finance data found that NPR board members' campaign contributions have sharply favored Democrats. Since 2004, members of the boards of NPR and the NPR Foundation, the public broadcaster's fundraising arm, have contributed nearly $2.2 million to federal candidates, parties, and PACs, of which $1.95 million, or 89 percent, has gone to Democratic candidates and liberal-leaning political action committees. [See where members of Congress get their campaign contributions.]
Officers and trustees of the NPR Foundation, which has no control over the organization's programming, have given substantially to national political campaigns in recent years. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, this group's members (as listed on NPR's most recent available annual report, from fiscal year 2008) have given almost $2.1 million to political campaigns in the last eight years. Fully 89 percent of this giving was to Democrats and progressive organizations. These figures include all federal contributions since the 2004 election cycle, the first in which "soft money" contributions were banned. "Soft money" refers to money given to a party for non-campaign activities, which until being banned in 2002 were unlimited and largely unregulated.
A majority of contributions from members of NPR's Board of Directors have likewise gone to Democrats. This board comprises 10 NPR station managers, the NPR president, the NPR Foundation president, and five prominent members of the public, selected by the board and confirmed by member stations. Political contributions by these station managers have been virtually nonexistent, and there are also no recorded political contributions from either Ron Schiller or Vivian Schiller. Of the five public board members, however, giving has been far more Democratic than Republican, with nearly 95 percent of the group's $106,000 in contributions going to Democrats or progressive committees. Three of these members have given exclusively to Democrats since the start of 2003, though in amounts less than $5,000 each. One member, Carol Cartwright, has given $4,100 to Republicans and $700 to Democrats. But the biggest giver, John A. Herrmann, Jr., has given $82,500 to candidates and committees since 2003, 98 percent of it to Democrats. [See editorial cartoons about the Democratic Party.]
NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher says political giving does not impact NPR's news coverage. She points out that the foundation is primarily responsible for fundraising and is not involved in programming, and that NPR's board "is not involved in day to day [operations]" and does not make recommendations about news coverage. "Past political contributions of members of a foundation or board--I would hesitate drawing a line between that and our news coverage," she adds.