William McGowan: NPR — out to lunch

William McGowan is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. The book authoritatively covers the important and interesting subject suggested in its subtitle.

Glenn Reynolds hailed the book in the excellent lead review of the January 24, 2011, issue of National Review. Glenn wrote: “McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago….[He] deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions.” Numerous excerpts of favorable reviews are compiled here.

We have invited Mr. McGowan to write a series of columns for us on themes related to the book, and he has accepted. In the first column of this series he engages in a bit of alternate history involving the sting that convulsed NPR:

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For NPR and its embattled leadership, this March has been the cruelest month.

Two top executives, including Ron Schiller, its Senior VP for fundraising and Betsy Liley, a Senior VP for institutional giving, were punked by conservative stingmeister James O’Keefe over a luncheon with two of O’Keefe’s agents. The agents were posing as representatives of an ersatz Muslim educational organization with links to the militant Muslim Brotherhood who said they wanted to donate $5 million to NPR for more and better reporting on Muslims. Ron Schiller was caught on tape trash-talking about Republicans on the Hill who want to go after NPR’s federal funding, calling the Tea Party “seriously racist, racist people,” and nodding silently as the two “Muslims” mouthed anti-Semitic clichés about Jewish media control. Schiller was also caught discoursing about a particularly fine varietal wine to his abstemious Muslim guests, suggesting that NPR’s cultural sensitivity training may need an upgrade.

Meanwhile the other NPR exec, Betsy Liley, was later caught on a surreptitiously taped phone call discussing whether NPR could accept the $5 million being offered by the Muslim reps anonymously. This to foil NPR opponents who have a weather eye out for politicized donations, which might be discovered in an audit. It turns out it wouldn’t be the first time NPR hid a donor: it had taken $1.8 million from George Soros before and withheld his name, at the request of Soros, from on-air sponsorship credits.

Soon, all hell breaks loose. NPR’s executive director Vivian Schiller, who was for five years in charge of the New York Times digital operations, is let go. She’d already had her bonus clipped by the NPR board for her sloppy handling of the Juan William firing in October and had seen her top deputy, 30- year NPR veteran Ellen Weiss, dismissed for her role in that debacle. Ron Schiller, no relation to his boss, gets the gate too—and loses a job he was heading for at the Aspen Institute as well. Betsy Liley is put on administrative leave.

Making the most of the lunch NPR served up to them, congressional Republicans who see NPR as the Liberal Media Devil Incarnate, vote to cut off its federal funding. Analysts say NPR’s lost $2 million won’t affect the national Mothership much, but local satellites, especially those in remote, rural areas, will suffer. And over at Fox News, Juan William is having the last laugh, having received a $2 million, three-year contract, a hefty book deal and renewed faith in the hidden workings of karma. Contrary to many NPR listeners and the executives who pander to them, especially during donor drives, since he’s been at Fox, Williams has shown repeatedly that he really is a liberal, holding his own against conservatives who dominate there. This allows Fox to boast that it is more tolerant of diverse ideological points of view than NPR, where diversity is a mantra.

Much has been written about NPR’s self-inflicted travail, especially when Williams first got the ax and Vivian Schiller allowed her inner Mean-Girl to suggest, in public, that Williams should have kept his comments about being made nervous at the sight of traditionally-clad Muslims when he got on an airplane, between him and “his psychiatrist and publicist.” Most thought Schiller was implying that Williams–the lone black male on the air at NPR–was either pathologically bigoted or saying shocking things for ratings attention.

But maybe we should revisit the original scene of the crime. Some have noted that Williams’ remarks were wrenched out of context–that he was actually scolding Bill O’Reilly for his sweeping generalization on an earlier program that “Muslims attacked us on 9-11.” Williams thought this unfair to Muslims as a group, at which point he added his fatal “share” about his feelings about flying with Muslims in mufti–but then saying his or the similar feelings of others shouldn’t become the basis of punitive public policy.

What I think needs more scrutiny though is the legitimacy of Williams’ nervousness, especially in the face of the apparent “dry runs” where Muslims have conducted drills to test airline security, both in the air and on the ground. Such dry runs were little discussed in the Williams flap. This is because the New York Times, which sets the agenda for liberal-minded news organizations such as NPR, has given them little attention or dismissed their seriousness.

On Northwest flight 327 between Detroit and Los Angeles on June 29, 2004, for example, thirteen Middle Eastern men-twelve Syrians belonging to a band and their Lebanese leader-spent the four-hour flight acting suspiciously. Their seats were scattered all about the plane, but in strategic locations; the men congregated in small groups at the back of the plane and made consecutive trips to the bathroom. During all this, they seemed to be signaling to each other. One of the men stood near the cabin door as the plane prepared to land.

At the end of the flight, when the seat belt sign was flashing, they all stood in unison. At one point, a passenger and her husband had approached a stewardess to express their concern. The stewardess told them that she and her colleagues were also concerned, as were some air marshals secretly on the flight. After landing, the plane was met by law enforcement officials, who whisked the group away for questioning.

The alarmed female passenger, Annie Jacobsen, wrote an online account of the experience, “Terror in the Skies,” which the left-wing blogosphere cruelly ridiculed as paranoid and racist. In a piece headlined “What Really Happened on Flight 327?” (in the Business section), Times columnist Joe Sharkey asked whether it might have been “an innocent sequence of events that some passengers, overcome by anxiety and perhaps ethnic stereotyping, misinterpreted as a plot to blow up their plane?”

Three years later, inspectors general for several agencies determined that the incident really was a dry run. A Homeland Security report explained that a background check in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, which was performed as part of a visa-extension application, produced “positive hits” for past criminal records or suspicious behavior for eight of the twelve Syrians. The Department of Homeland Security found a similar incident involving the Lebanese leader of the group five months before the event of June 2004. The report also said that the leader was detained a third time, in September, on a return trip to the United States from Istanbul, and scolded the Transportation Safety Administration for not pursuing the matter further.

Two years after the Northwest flight 327 incident in late November 2006, there was a similar case on a US Airways flight between Minneapolis and Phoenix involving Muslim passengers acting suspiciously, which was dubbed the case of the “Flying Imams.” A passenger passed a note to the pilot pointing out suspicious activity among the group, “cursing U.S. involvement w/Saddam before flight.”

An Arabic speaking passenger reportedly heard the group denouncing US actions in Iraq, asserting that the US had “killed Saddam” and was wrongly targeting Osama bin Laden. The six imams were positioned at strategic points around the cabin. Two of the imams also demanded seat belt extenders, though there was no apparent need for them. All six of the imams were taken off the plane, then questioned by the FBI and the Secret Service.

One of the imams involved was the head of the Islamic Center of Tucson, which one terrorism expert called “the first al Qaeda cell in the U.S.,” according to the Washington Post. Although the incident was covered extensively in much of the mainstream media, the Times hardly gave it prominent attention. Its report on the incident was filed by a stringer and closed with an assertion from one of the involved imams who, the Times stringer wrote “said that three of the six had prayed in the gate area, in the ritual of evening prayers, but had not meant to be disruptive and indeed had taken pains not to disturb other passengers.”

Neil MacFarquhar, who had the Muslims-in-America beat at the time, made a note of the “Flying Imams.” But it was merely a glancing reference, in the context of an entertainment section report a little over a week later describing the plot of a Canadian TV comedy, “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” In that show, an innocent Muslim is detained by paranoid security agents at an airport when they misinterpret his end of a cell phone call. MacFarquhar wrote: “That fictional moment is an all- too-possible occurrence, as witnessed when six imams were hauled off a US Airways plane in Minnesota in November after apparently spooking at least one fellow passenger by murmuring prayers that included the word Allah.”

MacFarquhar seemed both to minimize the dangers of aviation terror plots in general and the “Flying Imams” case in particular. Although the imams were never charged by law enforcement authorities, the question still lingers whether the imams might have been pretending to be practicing a dry run in order to file a juicy lawsuit. What they were up to remains unclear. But file a lawsuit they did, settling out of court for a confidential but undoubtedly substantial amount.

Without adequate news of these incidents and others, Williams’s remarks may have sounded to some, especially NPR listeners and leaders, as reactionary and racist when in fact they had a rational basis. But if the New York Times had reported better on these incidents, maybe NPR’s executives would have understood more about where Williams was flying from, the Williams dismissal may not even have occurred and NPR may not have made itself as vulnerable to the coup de grace delivered by O’Keefe. Which may, pardon the conjecture, have made Schiller & Company’s lunch cost a lot less than $2 million in lost federal financing.

Unlike the New York Times, we covered both of the incidents discussed above in some detail on this site. I also took a close look at the flying imams’ lawsuit against US Airways and law enforcement authorities in the Weekly Standard article “The flying imams win.”
The Web site for Mr. McGowan’s book on the Times is Gray Lady Down. Please take a look and consider purchasing the book.

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