Taking the public out of NPR
First, a confession: I listen to NPR. Sometimes, when I have to explain this fact to my right-wing brethren, I’ll forgo trying to make the case that much of what NPR does is simply great radio and instead I’ll note that it’s more useful to listen to enemy broadcasts than more friendly fare.
This is a serious point. Like never before, it’s now possible to get all of your news from avowedly nonliberal or explicitly right-wing media outlets. (It’s been possible to dine exclusively on liberal fare since World War II, at least). Growing media diversity is great, but with it comes the danger of ghettoization. If we all retreat to our respective clubhouses and simply consume the news and views that are most conducive to our worldviews, the odds for political progress diminish.
This is neither a strictly conservative point nor some gauzy celebration of moderation and compromise. Politics is ultimately about persuasion, and if you can’t understand where your opponents are coming from, you’ll never be able to convince them they’re wrong or convince the majority of Americans your arguments are better. In fact, you may not even have the better arguments if you’ve never tested them on people who don’t naturally agree with you.
The near suicidal idiocy of NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams, allegedly for his comments on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” about Muslims, will only worsen this trend. For good reason, millions of conservatives don’t trust NPR — and the rest of mainstream media. And because Williams’ comments were entirely defensible, even laudable (he honestly admitted a reflexive prejudice and then condemned the idea that policies should be guided by such prejudices), NPR’s stated reason makes no sense.
NPR claims it fired Williams because its journalists can’t offer “opinions.” This is a pathetic joke. By that standard, NPR’s Nina Totenberg — and many of her similarly opinionated colleagues — should have been fired years ago.
It’s obvious that NPR simply didn’t like the fact that Williams was sharing his talents with Fox News, even as a liberal. Less obvious, but perhaps just as telling, NPR seems to be lending way too much weight to the complaints of groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the left-wing gadflies at Media Matters for America. If you dance when outfits like these whistle their usual tunes, odds are you tilt to the left.
NPR should be defunded, but not because it’s liberal. If NPR were right wing (stop laughing!) it’d still be wrong for the federal government to be in the news business or to subsidize one set of views over another. The same goes for PBS. I have no huge problem with funding documentaries about bears and mummies, but state-run television news is an embarrassment in the age of C-SPAN and YouTube.
Heck, it already dropped the word “public” from its name — it’s now just NPR. If it can stopping being public in name, it can stop being public in deed.
Still, Republicans would be crazy to make this a priority after the midterm elections. Andrew McCarthy, my National Review colleague, insists that defunding NPR should be a test case about the fiscal seriousness of the coming GOP House majority. He compares NPR funding to a person wildly in debt, charging a fancy chandelier to his credit card while defaulting on his mortgage and his kids’ tuition. If we can’t defund NPR, he asks, how are we going to repeal Obamacare?
I take his point, but the analogy is flawed. Take it from a former public television producer, PBS and NPR have spent decades target-hardening their budgetary bunkers. Busting them quickly would take an enormous amount of time and effort, with miniscule reward. Indeed, Democrats would love it if Republicans allowed themselves to be baited into what would essentially be a culture-war fight over public radio (the last “war on Big Bird” was a disaster for the GOP).
Meanwhile, Obamacare’s roots are weak, it’s exposed and unpopular — and it represents a far greater threat to fiscal health. Forget chandeliers; going after NPR now would be like fixing a leaky faucet while your house is on fire. You can get around to that, after you’ve dealt with the crisis at hand.
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