Keillor’s fundraiser for Obama revives complaints of bias

By Karen Everhart and Mike Janssen

Like many entertainers, Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor has never tried to hide his liberal political leanings, but his decision to host an Obama re-election fundraising party in his Minnesota home last week worked the conservative blogosphere into a lather about NPR’s political bias.

Yet NPR has no control over Keillor or his nationally syndicated weekly program. And there’s no guarantee that his program’s distributor, the Minnesota-based American Public Media Group, could heel its star vaudevillian if it tried to neutralize him politically. Keillor owns his production company and is responsible for the show’s content.

APMG took a measured stance by endorsing Keillor’s First Amendment rights as an individual. “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. The companies’ ethics 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.”

“We trust that audiences clearly understand the difference between news programming and entertainment programming,” Gray said.

During board meetings at NPR headquarters last week, Wyoming Public Radio chief Christina Kuzmych asked NPR President Gary Knell if the network would make a statement about Keillor’s activities, but he dodged specifics. “We will be actively engaged in forward-looking processes not only to make sure there are guidelines but that individual outward-facing people who represent NPR in the future will be cognizant of reputational issues that they have a responsibility towards in their daily roles,” he said.

Michigan Radio News Director Vincent Duffy, who is president-elect of the Radio Television Digital News Association, saw nothing unethical with Keillor’s decision to host the fundraiser, but, as he wrote in an RTDNA blog post, he viewed 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 wrote. “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 faulted 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 the stations to acquire and broadcast A Prairie Home Companion, he wrote.

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