5 min read

As the House of Representatives votes today on whether to cut National Public Radio funding, consider a thought experiment: Imagine that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly had IRS agents force you and every American to contribute money to the companies that produce their shows. Imagine further that they also had Congress and the Federal Communications Commission force NPR to fire “All Things Considered” host Michele Norris and replace her with a Limbaugh protégé.

Even if you like Rush and O’Reilly, the thought of these coercive actions surely sticks in your craw. Yet that is just what Free Press, a leading advocacy group defending NPR’s federal funds, is demanding.

The funding side of the analogy is obvious: Some folks don’t like Rush and O’Reilly, some don’t like NPR, but only the latter group is taxed every year and forced to send millions to a media outlet they can’t stand (via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a government-created, government-funded “nonprofit” entity).

As for the part about Congress and the FCC coercing NPR to hire and fire hosts, that’s laid out in a report Free Press produced on how to fix the “imbalance” in talk radio. (I discussed it in an earlier post.) Ever keen to grab federal dollars, the report’s authors – one of whom now holds the Orwellian post of Chief Diversity Officer at the FCC – want to decree that if the regulations they propose don’t force unsubsidized media companies to do as the government dictates, the disobedient capitalists must be slapped with a fee that will go straight to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “to cover controversial and political issues in a fair and balanced manner.”

NPR’s defenders would respond indignantly to this argument by proclaiming that NPR is the nation’s highest form of journalism, that it’s utterly nonpartisan and unbiased, unlike those low-brow partisans Rush and O’Reilly, and that terrible calamities will befall Americans, especially poor and rural folks, if NPR is taken off the federal dole.

Unfortunately, these claims become harder and harder to justify, especially in the wake of conservative muckraker James O’Keefe’s video showing NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, sucking up to what he thought were two wealthy donors affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Schiller casually berated Jews (especially ones who own media companies), the Tea Party, evangelical Christians, and Republicans.

But even leaving that sting video aside, evidence that NPR leans leftward is not hard to find. Take NPR itself, for example. The host of its own “On the Media” show, Bob Garfield, recently confessed:

if you were to somehow poll the political orientation of everybody in the NPR news organization and at all of the member stations, you would find an overwhelmingly progressive, liberal crowd.

Then there’s New York Times media columnist David Carr, who freely admits:

Many in Congress…have argued that NPR’s serving of news comes with a heaping side dish of squishy liberal ideology. And that’s true to a point. In terms of assignments and sensibility, NPR has always been more blue than red….

Pundit Juan Williams, fired by the same head of NPR who has now lost her own job thanks to the sting video, has good reason to be annoyed with the place, but he also had years to observe it. His assessment of its strengths and weaknesses sounds fair and accurate:

The work of NPR’s many outstanding journalists is barely an afterthought to leadership with this mindset and obsessed with funding. NPR has many very good journalists. But they are caught in a game where they are trying to please a leadership that doesn't want to hear stories that contradict the official point of view. I'm not just talking about conservatives but also the far-left, the poor, anybody who didn't fit into leadership's design of NPR as the official voice of comfortable, liberal-leaning upper-income America.

Another data point comes from U.S. News, which helpfully points out that "NPR Boardmembers and Fundraisers Give Overwhelmingly to Democrats." Then there's Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio and a member of the NPR Board's Distribution/Interconnection Committee. In a touchingly idealistic plea to the board itself, she begged them to admit that "there's an elephant in the room," namely, that the entire system has had a "clear strategy" that has "unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite." And so "the criticisms that are coming at us — whether they're couched in other things — do have some legitimacy."

Schardt implores the board to admit it is only "providing 11 percent of America with an extraordinary service," and to declare that in future "we are absolutely committed to serving — truly — and speaking in the voices — truly — of 80 percent or 90 percent of the public."

A lovely thought, and in America we have a name for media entities that strive desperately to reach their largest possible audience -- "corporations" -- and a name for where they do it -- "the market."

(An aside to Free Press: Your co-founder Robert McChesney says your "ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists." Please note that NPR fits that category nicely. It serves its core audience first and foremost, just like, say, Fox News. The difference is that Fox doesn't get corporate welfare via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

The indictments of NPR I’ve cited come from people who don’t necessarily want NPR to go away or even lose its place at the federal trough of IRS-extracted “donations.” But if NPR hosts, former employees, and New York Times columnists aren’t enough to make the point that NPR doesn’t float above partisanship and ideology, how about the simple test of its current supporters, like the George Soros- and Ford Foundation-funded Free Press and that beacon of nonpartisan analysis, MoveOn.org?

Or simpler still, how about the Democratic President of the United States, who despite the controversy, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, has defended his budget’s increase in funding for government-supported media?

More importantly, even if you believe in the tooth fairy and NPR’s objectivity, can’t we have an honest discussion of whether government funding is good for NPR in the first place? Ron Schiller himself, during his friendly chat with an ostensible Muslim Brotherhood front group, observed that a cut-off of federal funds would cause some pain to some stations in the short term, but “frankly, it is clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding.” Schiller went on to explain this would increase NPR’s independence, among other good things.

Even Free Press’s campaign to keep NPR’s sticky fingers in your wallet is schizophrenic on this point. Free Press insists that not one penny of coerced money be held back from its political allies at NPR, while simultaneously demanding that public broadcasting not be dependent on Uncle Sam:

We beat back these attacks in 1995 and 2005, but it’s time for public broadcasting to end its abusive relationship with Congress. That means not just pushing back to restore these funding cuts and denounce the dirty tricks being used by public media’s opponents, but finding ways to ensure long-term support for PBS, NPR and, most importantly, those local community stations that is free from the political whims in Washington.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal unravels that twisted reasoning: If you accept the analogy, then Free Press’s “advice to a woman in an abusive relationship is to continue the relationship and remain economically dependent on the abuser.” How misogynistic can you get, Taranto wonders? He chivalrously offers different advice for NPR that would allow it to keep its honor unstained and its journalism independent of politicians’ whims:

Why not let NPR go it alone, preferably as a for-profit business? Its programming is better than its executives' attitudes, and left to its own devices it could either choose to market itself as a network for snotty liberals or broaden its appeal to those with highbrow tastes regardless of politics. Either way it would be freed from the constraint of having to pretend to respect ordinary Americans, who would no longer be coerced into paying for the enterprise.

FOOTNOTE: O’Keefe's video of NPR is embroiled in controversy over its journalistic fairness. Neither Schiller himself nor NPR’s spokesmen dispute the bottom line that he said objectionable things, but it’s a tribute to unsubsidized, “capitalist” media that the story on O’Keefe’s selective editing was broken by none other than the website of conservative icon/liberal bogeyman Glenn Beck. Similarly, the recent sting videos of Planned Parenthood clinics by pro-life muckrakers at LiveAction.org have generated a fierce debate among pro-life thinkers over whether such deceptive investigations are immoral (for examples, go here, here, and here). Isn’t this uproar and controversy in a vigorous civil society -- untethered by government paymasters and regulators -- inspiring? It beats the chablis-and-brie monotone of government-run media hands down.

4 thoughts on “Save NPR by defunding it”

  1. Scott Walter says:

    Ms. Macdonald, thanks for your kind words and for seconding my point on NPR’s bias.

    Mr. Zaharatos, thanks for your thoughtful comment, but I think you’ve failed to make some crucial distinctions. First, regarding taxpayers’ funding things they don’t like: The proper distinction between funding NPR and funding the war in Iraq is not the amount of funds appropriated but whether the Constitution grants the federal government the authority to fund the activity in the first place. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, funding a war is a legitimate activity for Congress. Citizens who judge a particular war to be unworthy of support must try to persuade the current Congress to change course and/or replace the Congress with a newly elected Congress that will end support for the war.

    Funding a domestic newspaper or radio station, by contrast, is not something Congress has any business doing, no matter what amount is spent or how many people happen to like it. Madison, the “father” of the Constitution, and Jefferson struggled for years to pass the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which famously declares, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”

    Your last point, about the difference between NPR’s reporting versus Rush and Beck, also fails to distinguish between reporting and entertainment. Rush and Beck do not call themselves “reporters” and their work should not be directly compared to those who do. Having said that, I believe that one often would learn more accurately about the world from these two entertainers than from NPR. I mentioned Beck precisely because his website – not NPR itself, or any other mainstream media outlet – was the first to do the work of critiquing the editing of the NPR sting video. You make me think of left-wing icon Susan Sontag’s painful confession in 1982: ”Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?” (The Nation, by the way, reprinted Sontag’s speech but deleted the passage that impugned its accuracy!)

    Two final thoughts: You say we should not “deprive people of the basic rights to quality programming.” I cannot imagine how anyone could claim to have such a right. As a bibliophile, I wonder if I have a basic right to quality books? If so, I’ve got a long list the taxpayers can start buying.

    You also make a mistake when you say funding for NPR is $5 million annually. NPR receives around that amount in direct grants from the Congressionally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but CPB also provides NPR radio station affiliates with roughly another $100 million, which they in turn use to pay fees to NPR.

  2. Brian Zaharatos says:

    I worry that the following statements in your argument are problematic:

    “The funding side of the analogy is obvious: Some folks don’t like Rush and O’Reilly, some don’t like NPR, but only the latter group is taxed every year and forced to send millions to a media outlet they can’t stand (via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a government-created, government-funded “nonprofit” entity).”

    It seems to be the nature of taxation that SOME of one’s tax money is spend supporting something that that individual would not support ideologically. Perhaps an obvious example would be a more left leaning citizen’s tax dollars contributing to the War in Iraq, or a right leaning individual’s tax dollars contributing to Medicare. As long as there are any differences in political ideology among citizens, it won’t be the case that everyone’s money will go toward something they support.

    The funding for NPR is $5 million annually: .001% of the federal budget. The war budget in Afghanistan apparently costs about $10 billion per month (according to a Washington Time’s article). Yes, some very small amount of a “conservative’s” tax money may be going toward NPR; but a sizable portion of a “liberal’s” tax money is going toward a war that they disagree with. Your argument seems to entail that we should cut our Defense budget significantly (or to $0?) since some citizens disagree with the policy. I’m not sure if you want to be committed to that, but it seems to follow.

    Also, it might be rhetorically persuasive for you to criticize Obama for defending an increase in spending on public media, but even a 50% increase in media spending would just be adding a drop to the ocean of debt accumulating. I don’t claim that debt isn’t a problem, but it needs a serious more radical solution that doesn’t deprive people of the basic rights to quality programming (yes I do think it is quality; more, but not much, more to follow…)

    I would also take issue with your claims about the “lean” of NPR (though I won’t be detailed now). I would only like to claim that the quality difference in reporting, in general, between most NPR broadcasters and Rush or Beck is insurmountable. You may answer that I’m looking through a “liberal lens” myself and that of course the quality of the former seems better but I disagree. There seems to be a basic set of objective journalistic criteria being met at NPR (for the most part–in their actual programming) that is not being met by Rush (that’s NOT to say that conservatives cannot meet that criteria (I certainly think they can!) or that NPR never fails at meeting it).

  3. Anne Macdoanld says:

    Your article was forwarded to me by my friend Brent Fish. I very much enjoyed your article and your point of view. While NPR does have some good programming, it is so left leaning it is hard to listen to at times. I am glad that the House voted to cut funding.

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