I am a regular National Public Radio (NPR) listener; I do not contribute to the funding of National Public Radio. As I’ve mentioned here before I listen to several NPR podcasts (Technology, Religion, Business Story of the Day, World Story of the Day, and Planet Money) as well as some podcasts that are or have been partly funded through NPR (This American Life, On The Media). I believe they engage in behavior during election cycles that falls into the same gray area as voter guides and church issue advocacy, and so I think it is appropriate that they come under scrutiny every time the Republicans come into power in Washington. I also believe that the current push to defund NPR is stuff and nonsense like the recurring attempts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts: the amount of money is relatively small, the interests that depend on the money are clever and entrenched, so the furor surrounding defunding attempts is a sort of media-friendly theater meant to sharpen distinctions between political constituencies on the left and right. But that’s another topic for another day.
I don’t give money to my local station because their locally-produced programming does not reflect my values; I do not hear an editorial voice there that sounds familiar or shares my values in any way shape or form. And the syndicated programming they offer, which is really what’s at the center of the current discussion, doesn’t either.
The current discussion started when James O’Keefe of Project Veritas fame posed as a potential Muslim donor to NPR and got fundraiser Ron Schiller to say some stupid things. O’Keefe released an edited version of the tape, then later the full tape, and Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned. This played into an ongoing narrative on the part of the Tea Party element within the Republican Party and led to a vote to deny federal funding to NPR [link].
While I tend to think that NPR should not be getting federal money and I think it’s reasonable for NPR to become a political football every few years, this is not the way I would have wanted this to happen. I’m not a fan of O’Keefe; I think he’s more like Michael Moore than say Eighties-era Mike Wallace, and tends to muddy the issues he touches in a way that lowers the level of the debate, etc. Let me put this another way: I wish he could find a way to ask the same questions he’s asking without debasing the discussion with cheap tricks.
But the response from NPR has been interesting and enlightening, and as a result I think I have more specific reasons for wanting it defunded or at least reconsidered than I did before. Here is the typical response from NPR, more or less:
NPR receives only about two percent of its income directly from the [Corporation for Public Broadcasting]. Federal funding mostly goes to stations that pay dues to NPR for programs. It provides roughly 10 percent of the public radio economy, but for small stations that percentage can be a lot higher. In rural communities it can run as high as 30 sometimes 50 percent… [link]
The argument basically goes like this: federal funding goes to stations, which in turn pay for programs. The content of the programs, which is what people like me actually hear, isn’t funded (directly) by federal money, so neener neener, or words to that effect. The content gets funded by multiple tax-exempt foundations, corporations, and of course NPR stations, so if you want to do something about the NPR editorial point of view, take it up with them.
Fair enough. What this means to me is that rather than defunding NPR, Congress should have someone take a look at its qualifications for tax-exempt status, and ask questions about whether its political speech is appropriate for its tax status. Hint: I do not think this is ever going to happen.
That’s enough for today. In the next post I will actually mention Sam Negus. I promise.