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US public broadcasting chief Vivian Schiller quits after sting catches Tea Party gibe

The future of public broadcasting in the United States, already hazy because of pressure from conservative Republicans for deep cuts in its funding, looked even more precarious last night after National Public Radio's (NPR) chief executive took the fall for one of her senior subordinates saying on a video recording that Tea Party members are "racist".

Vivian Schiller, who had headed NPR for two years, resigned just hours after the details of what had been said by her top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to her), surfaced in other news outlets. Media reports showed him suggesting that the network might be better off without any government funding.

It was a shocking development also due to the unusual circumstances of Mr Schiller's gaffe, which was made during a meeting with alleged Muslim philanthropists interested in giving money to the network. In fact, it was an elaborate sting, captured by a hidden video camera, orchestrated by James O'Keefe, a notorious conservative agitator.

The video shows Mr Schilller's interlocutors, whom he met for lunch in a Washington café, purporting to have an interest in supporting NPR with a donation of $5m (£3m) to help it counter the allegedly unfair "Zionist coverage" provided by other large US news outlets. If they meant to provoke Mr Schiller, they certainly succeeded. Most damaging was an exchange that begins with one of Mr Schiller's lunch partners asking about "the radical, racist, Islamophobic, tea-party people". Mr Schiller responded quickly: "And not just Islamophobic but really xenophobic... I mean, basically, they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America, gun-toting – I mean, it's scary. They're seriously racist people."

Like any public broadcasting organisation that takes taxpayer money – scholars of the BBC will surely concur – NPR must expend a great deal of energy managing its sometimes testy relations with government and politicians. Last year, Ms Schiller was blasted over the firing by the network of one of its hosts, Juan Williams, for comments he made while on Fox News about feeling personally uncomfortable flying on a plane with Muslims.

Above all, NPR finds itself forced perennially to push back against claims on the conservative right, not entirely unfounded, that it has a liberal bias in its handling and reporting of the news.

Thus the characterisations of the Tea Party movement by its own fundraiser were not helpful. Though Mr Schiller had already announced plans to leave the network, his departure was made effective immediately.

It was with similar swiftness that Ms Schiller resigned her post, apparently after prodding from NPR's board of directors.

The dismay of the board will have been all the deeper because of the delicate situation in which NPR found itself on Capitol Hill even before this latest scandal. Large numbers of conservative Republicans – many in Washington courtesy of Tea Party support – have already been clamouring for an end to all subsidies for the radio network as part of the broader push to attack the country's budget deficit. Much of that funding goes first to member stations around the country, which then pay fees to NPR to air its programmes.

"I obviously had no prior knowledge" of the executive's Tea Party remarks, "and nothing to do with them, and disavowed them as soon as I learned of them all. But I'm the CEO, and the buck stops here," Ms Schiller said after announcing her resignation.

She added: "I'm hopeful that my departure from NPR will have the intended effect of easing the defunding pressure on public broadcasting."

Mr O'Keefe became a hero to the conservative right in 2008 when he pulled a similar hidden-camera stunt that damaged Acorn, a community organising group that was at the time central to the get-out-the-vote efforts of then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign for president.