Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor has never tried to hide his liberal political leanings, but his decision to host a private fundraiser this week for President Obama's reelection campaign has worked the conservative blogosphere into a lather about NPR's political bias.
The trouble is, NPR has no control over Keillor or his nationally syndicated weekly program. Neither does Minnesota-based American Public Media Group, which distributes Prairie Home Companion to public radio stations. Prairie Home Companion is not a news program -- it's an entertainment show -- and Keillor's own production company is responsible for its content.
"Mr. Keillor's political opinions and activities are his own, and do not reflect the views of APMG or its affiliated companies," said Bill Gray, spokesman. APM's ethical policies prohibit those who work in news and public affairs programming from participating in partisan political activities, but "Mr. Keillor is not a journalist, and thus his political opinions and activities do not have an impact on how news is presented to listeners."
NPR has spent more than a year updating its ethical standards to withstand the white-hot scrutiny that came after the firing of news analyst Juan Williams, and public radio and TV have just adopted an industry-wide code of editorial integrity, yet the field can't get around the glee that political foes will take in bashing public radio when given the opportunity.
Michigan Radio News Director Vincent Duffy sees nothing unethical with Keillor's decision to host the fundraiser, but he describes it as "a bone headed move."
Keillor "is certainly aware that most of America probably thinks he has an office down the hall from Terry Gross and the Car Talk guys," Duffy writes on his blog. "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."
Duffy faults Keillor for failing to consider how his political activism affects the local stations that carry his program. Stations take heat from angry listeners who write or call them and, in some cases, cancel the membership donations that make it possible for them to acquire and broadcast Prairie Home Companion.
APM understands the difficulty that Keillor's activities have caused for stations, but it remains focused "solely on the programs that his production company produces for us," Gray said. "We trust that audiences clearly understand the difference between news programming and entertainment programming."