Branded as a revelatory scoop uncovering previously unknown donations from George Soros to NPR, James O’Keefe’s latest sting on NPR was debunked as a non-story within hours of its release.
The news that O’Keefe purports to “break” — that Soros had previously donated to the public broadcaster via grants from Soros’ Open Society Institute — had, in fact, long been publicly known through tax records and even press releases.
“We believe that journalism is a pillar of an open and democratic society and a critical tool for transparency and accountability,” a spokeswoman for OSI, Laura Silber, told TPM after sending over a list of previous grants to NPR and affiliates. “A free and independent press serves as a watchdog of both government and the private sector. NPR, which is a respected national news organization, provides an excellent vehicle for regional and national analyses of the most critical issues facing our country.”
The new audio recording features NPR director of institutional giving Betsy Liley talking with one of O’Keefe’s actors, a member of a phony Muslim group claiming to want to donate $5 million to NPR. In their conversation, Liley discusses donations from George Soros, noting that after conservative attacks on him intensified he asked that his name not be mentioned on the air as a sponsor.
“George Soros and the Open Society Institute gave us $1.8 million, and they have decided not to use on-air credits because of what’s happening in Congress,” Liley says.
Lilely recounted past donations from Soros, saying “I think the first gift was within the first year he set up the Foundation, which was 10 or 15 years ago” and noting that there was much less media attention to his donations then.
It’s here that O’Keefe starts going off the rails. Touting his “scoop” in all caps on Twitter, O’Keefe wrote “BREAKING: NPR DIRECTOR ADMITS TO HAVING RECEIVED SOROS MONEY FOR YEARS…” with a link to the video, which also features O’Keefe pushing a press officer at Soros’ Open Society Institute to hand over information on their grants before she finally hangs up. The Daily Caller ran with the news as well, throwing up the headline: “New O’Keefe tape shows George Soros has donated to NPR before last year.”
But donations from the Open Society Institute have long been public. They reported in their IRS 990 forms for 1997 and 1998 donations of $50,000 to finance a series on criminal justice and a series of grants totaling about $80,000 to support coverage of Central Asia. In addition to these direction donations, OSI has provided dozens of grants to individual public radio stations like WNYC and Minnesota Public Radio, some of whom have produced programming used by NPR. A quick Google search by Media Matters immediately dug up two old NPR press releases from 2000 and 2001 proudly touting support from OSI for programming by affiliate stations, both documentaries that aired on All Things Considered .
As discussed on the video, Soros made his largest public donation to NPR last year, a $1.8 million award to hire 100 reporters to cover statehouses around the country. That donation was widely publicized at the time.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.