On the Media: The battle for NPR’s public funding


“Dignified” is not a word often associated with the wretches populating today’s spluttering, hollering media. But it’s a word that came to mind this week watching National Public Radio cope with the first in what will be a series of attacks on its government funding.

Newly energized conservatives moved Thursday in the House of Representatives to limit payments to the public radio network, which they insist is a hotbed of left-wing political orthodoxy. They failed but will without question try again, as a Republican majority takes power next year.

To what end? Apparently to satisfy an itch to lash out at menacing Eastern elites, to vanquish Big Government and to vindicate the righteousness of Juan Williams, sent packing last month by NPR for speaking intemperately about Muslims during an appearance with Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly.


Never mind that grants to public radio from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, $94 million a year, amount to a rounding error, a tiny fraction of a fraction of the federal government’s budget. Never mind that this week’s action would have disproportionately harmed rural, small-town stations, not big-city powerhouses. Never mind that Williams (though terminated for no good reason, in my view) made an insignificant imprint on NPR’s total news package.

Moving NPR to the very top of the GOP cut list has much more to do with symbolism and bowing to an emboldened political base than with good government, impartial media or serving the average citizen. After all, the audience for public radio has grown 60% over the last decade. Forty million listeners now tune in each week.

No doubt many seek a refuge from the silliness and ideological histrionics increasingly gripping the rest of media. That would have been clear to anyone who has actually listened to NPR news, as opposed, say, to getting a caricatured view of it from ideologues on cable television and AM talk radio.

What NPR reported — even in the hours the House considered tampering with its funding — showed it to be far more temperate, balanced and, yes, dignified than its enemies.

A good chunk of the coverage of late has been about the Republicans who dominated this month’s midterm election. One story this week on the Republican Governor’s Assn. conference in San Diego, reported how the GOP group celebrated its new diversity, courtesy of the election of two Latinos, an Indian American and the first woman elected governor of Oklahoma.

That “Morning Edition” broadcast also enabled David Dreier (R-San Dimas), the incoming GOP chair of the House Rules Committee, to lay out his agenda. Dreier called the U.S. “a center-right nation” and described how he hoped to nudge President Obama to a more conservative agenda.

Another day recently, NPR featured an incoming conservative House member, talking about a desire to get government “out of the way of the people.” NPR’s website — courtesy of content-partner, the National Review — posted favorite reading materials of the incoming GOP leaders. A profile of incoming House Speaker John Boehner viewed him largely through the eyes of other Republicans, including one former congressman who praised the Ohioan as a reformer with a “sense of perspective.”

There wasn’t a hint of subterfuge or disrespect in any of that coverage. Not that Mr. Boehner would care. A couple of weeks ago, he told the National Review that he had severe doubts about “spending taxpayers’ money to support a left-wing radio network.”

Given their expressed disdain for NPR, the Republicans chose an interesting flanking maneuver for their first major attack on public broadcasting since 1995, when Newt Gingrich was House speaker. The procedural gambit (which failed by a 239-171 vote) would have prohibited public radio stations from spending their grants from the taxpayer-supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to buy NPR programs.

This would have put only a small dent in robust, big-city stations, like KCRW 89.9 FM and KPCC 89.3 FM in Los Angeles. Both get well under 10% of their funding from the tax-backed corporation. They could have bought NPR programs, regardless, simply by dipping into their member contributions.

It would have been small, rural stations, some of which get 50% or more of their funding from CPB, that would have struggled if they had not been allowed to buy shows from NPR. Many of these stations, ironically, are in conservative regions where alternative news outlets are few and far between. Producing their own alternative news would be prohibitively expensive.

“When they talk about killing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting allocation to NPR, they are talking about taking it away from the people who already have the weakest voice,” said Jennifer Ferro, general manager of Santa Monica-based KCRW.

Gingrich put public television in his gun sights the last time around. He pressed for months to zero-out funding for PBS, only to find that mainstream Americans liked public TV characters, especially Big Bird.

The GOP leaders called for Thursday’s vote after constituents targeted NPR in an online vote sponsored by Republican House Whip Eric Cantor. But like the last opponents of public broadcasting, they will have trouble pushing cuts past a divided Senate and the Democrat in the White House.

In Los Angeles this week, NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller preferred to talk about her reporters risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots. She touted the recent addition of bureaus in Istanbul and Jakarta and an initiative to add reporters to follow government in all 50 states.

She wanted to talk, in other words, about news, on a day when Fox News boss Roger Ailes preferred to taunt NPR leaders as “ Nazis.” In an “apology” to the Anti-Defamation League, Ailes reportedly suggested he should have substituted “nasty, inflexible bigot,” for “Nazi.”

Schiller would not be drawn into the eye-gouging. But she had no illusion that it would end any time soon.

“It’s not over. There is no question it’s not over,” Schiller said of the attacks on NPR funding. “But I don’t think our listeners, readers and viewers are going to stand for it.”

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