Garrison Keillor sticks a big “Obama” sign on the lawn of Lake Wobegon

Feb 23, 2012

 “Well it’s been a quiet a week in my hometown…”

Fans of A Prairie Home Companion will recognize those words as the opening to Garrison Keillor’s weekly monologue about the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. But this week the real life of Garrison Keillor was probably more exciting than the tales from “the little town that time forgot,” because this week, Garrison Keillor hosted a fundraising event for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

The conservative bloggers are treating this event as another “gotcha” moment for NPR. As the news director of a large NPR affiliate station, I expect the nasty emails from the crowd who want to “defund NPR” will start to arrive by the weekend. 

The headlines are quite accusatory:

“Taxpayer-Funded NPR Host Garrison Keillor To Host Obama Fundraiser” screamed Politicons.net

“What Liberal Bias?” asked Freerepublic.com

My favorite came from Burstupdates – “NPR RADIO GUY TO HOST OBAMA FUNDRAISER: FAIR AND BIASED”

Let’s make one thing clear right away. Garrison Keillor does not work for NPR, he never has. He’s the host of a non-news, entertainment program produced and distributed by American Public Media. His only connection to NPR is that many stations (including my own) that pay NPR for the rights to programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, also pay American Public Media for the rights to air A Prairie Home Companion.

Saying Keillor works for NPR is about as smart as saying Homer Simpson plays for the NFL, because both can be seen on your local Fox affiliate.

Admittedly, the complicated infrastructure of public broadcasting confuses many outsiders. Even the people who yell “Defund NPR” would be yelling “Defund CPB” if they knew what they were talking about.

Even the website hosted by Accuracy in Media got it wrong when they suggested Keillor’s actions went against NPR’s code of ethics and that the fundraiser is  “further confirmation of NPR’s political leaning.”

This whole episode must be driving the suits at NPR crazy. They had to deal with enough bad press after firing Juan Williams and having an executive caught criticizing the Tea Party in a James O’Keefe video sting.

Lately the network has bent over backwards to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. It cut their ties to a freelance music host after it was discovered she helped organize an “Occupy Washington” protest. All Things Considered host Michele Norris stepped down from her hosting duties when her husband took a job with the Obama campaign.

NPR also rewrote its code of ethics. It’s now one of the strictest in the industry, and it’s enforced.

And now this.

The one person most associated with NPR, but who has never worked for NPR, goes and does something that would probably get him fired from NPR.

Even the writers at “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” couldn’t have dreamt this one up.

I don’t think there is anything unethical about what Keillor has done (stay with me though, I also don’t think it was very smart).

Keillor is not a journalist, he is an entertainer, and therefore is not beholden to any journalistic code of ethics. NPR’s conservative critics might recognize this argument as the same one Fox News Channel made when defending Glenn Beck.

Like other entertainers, Keillor can support Obama in much the same way Adam Sandler supported Rudy Giuliani or Pat Boone supported John McCain.

In fact, Accuracy in Media (if you can believe those guys) reports Keillor has donated more than $170,000 to Democratic causes over his career.

That’s fine, if you’re not in the news business, you can spend your money however you want.

But I still think this is a bone headed move on Keillor’s part. He is certainly aware that most of America probably thinks he has an office down the hall from Terry Gross and the Car Talk guys. He also must be aware that a large crowd in America enjoys pointing fingers at NPR and screaming, “Liberals!” and working to cut the ever dwindling amount of public tax dollars that stations receive.

I wonder if Keillor realizes the majority of that criticism is directed at the management of local stations, the stations who are, in reality, his customers.

It’s the local stations that get the angry letters, phone calls and emails from people who fear their entire income tax payment is given to us so we can promote our liberal bias.

It’s the local stations that have people cancel their memberships because this kind of action “finally proves” just how liberally biased we are in our news coverage.

It’s the local stations who pay hard earned membership dollars to carry Garrison Keiller’s program, one of the most expensive in our schedules.

He’s not breaking any journalism ethics, but he’s not doing journalists at local stations any favors either.