Having migrated from the world of mainstream media (a national political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a columnist with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland) to one of progressive policy study (a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress), it might come as something of a shock to learn that I agree with right-wing attacks on federal support for National Public Radio.
Well, sort of. And I must confess to being more than a tad uncomfortable about saying so at this point of the debate, especially in light of last week’s 228-192 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to end public support of NPR. The Republican-backed legislation now goes to the Senate, where it seems unlikely to be greeted with support by the Democrat-led chamber.
To be clear, the House vote was really only another symbolic shot across the bow of a news operation for its perceived reporting bias. Conservative activists have a long history of attacking NPR as a bastion of liberalism, which of course is poppycock. But there’s no convincing some conservatives that anything short of rants by Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh is a part of the sweeping media conspiracy to undermine the nation.
In my humble opinion, NPR is the closest thing this country has to broad, fair, and expansive news coverage of domestic and international issues. That’s why I’m an avid NPR listener, and why it’s my primary (but not exclusive) source of daily news and information. And, to be totally transparent, I have on occasion, during a three-decade career in newspaper journalism, been employed as a commentator, program host, and news analyst by NPR and some of its local affiliates.
But my affection for NPR and its operations and programs don’t cloud my view of what’s best for keeping the public informed. So I’m compelled to be honest and give the devil its due. The core of the conservative argument regarding NPR is one that progressives should claim as its own—taxpayers shouldn’t support any news operations, regardless of the perceived leanings of its reporting.
In my golden newsroom days, I trained myself to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interests. Taking money from the people you report on is a cardinal sin. Doing so raises doubts that go directly to the core of credibility. If you want the most people to trust what you say, don’t sup at the pay master’s table.
Of course, there are some murky shades of gray that must be illuminated to make this case. NPR is more than a news operation; it’s a radio network that distributes programming to member stations. Its news shows, among them “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Marketplace,” are in a mixed bag with strictly entertainment offerings such as “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Car Talk.”
Cutting off funding for news would also cut off needed resources to produce and distribute the entertainment shows as well, especially in small-town and rural markets that broadcast NPR’s offerings but lack the deep-pocketed donors that provide the bulk of public radio’s revenues.
And, it should be understood, NPR isn’t a line in the federal budget. It receives competitively bid grants from some agencies, which amounted to an estimated $5 million. That’s a microscopic figure in the nation’s overall budget, one that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described as "one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of the federal budget."
In short, cutting off all federal support to NPR will not close the budget gap, a vital argument conservatives make as a fig leaf to hide their larger ambitions to limit the reporting of news in ways they disagree with.
So the real intent of the anti-NPR legislation isn’t fiscal at all. Rather, conservative activists want the executives and journalists in the NPR news operation to be on guard as they go about their jobs. They want the broadcasters, writers, and editors worrying about whether their funding will evaporate if they cross swords with their conservative overlords on Capitol Hill. Deep down, conservatives might even be pleased if Democrats in the Senate succeed in maintaining public support for NPR.
Indeed, the recent troubles at NPR stem from the organization’s effort to bend over backwards to appease congressional conservatives. The infamous James O’Keefe sting that led to the resignation of an NPR fundraiser and its top executive were painful judgment miscalculations that stem, at their roots, from an effort to make its conservative critics happy.
That’s no way to run a news operation. Despite arguments invoking threats to the First Amendment posed by the House vote, the case for ending federal support to NPR actually should liberate the news operation to be more—not less—independent in pursuing its ambitions of a free and unfettered press.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.