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I’m a conservative but defunding NPR is a mistake. What should happen instead might be surprising

OpinionI’m a conservative but defunding NPR is a mistake. What should happen instead might be surprising

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The liberal political and cultural bias of National Public Radio has moved center-stage, thanks to the Free Press essay by Uri Berliner, the former NPR editor who resigned earlier this month. In his essay he correctly observed that NPR news both caters to and reflect “the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the US population,” mainly in blue cities and college towns.  

The ensuing tempest has led, once again, to a move to defund the organization. Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, has said he’ll introduce such a bill, as has Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn.  Don’t expect these bills to go far, however.  As Jesse Walker has observed in Reason Magazine, such efforts have been tried—and failed—multiple times before. The Trump administration tried to zero out all public broadcasting funding—by cutting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting budget—and could not do so.  Today, the combinaton of a Democratic Senate and White House makes such a prospect remote.

But for those who entertain the idea—or who’d settle for just a course-correction at NPR—it’s well worth looking at what would likely happen were it somehow to actually be defunded. The most likely scenario: it would become even more liberal and definitely less accountable.

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It’s crucial to keep in mind the fact that National Public Radio is a freestanding, non-profit organization—established by Congress through the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Cutting off its direct federal funds would not put an end to NPR as a tax-exempt non-profit entity.  

A defunded NPR would almost surely become a culture war martyr.  We should expect major left-liberal big philanthropy—including the Ford, MacArthur and (George Soros’) Open Society Foundations —to rush to fill the gap, followed by Carnegie, Hewlett and a host of others.  Such funders already support NPR and make clear their interest in influencing or affirming its story selection (for instance, the obvious climate change agenda of MacArthur’s NPR tagline, in support of a “just, verdant and peaceful world”).  This is not to say NPR takes orders from funders, rather that their worldviews overlap.  One doesn’t hear of NPR support, for instance, for coverage of disaster relief from the Rev. Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, whose volunteer doctors and nurses sign a “statement of faith.”

It was Ford Foundation funding which, prior to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, first supported, on a large scale, “educational television.” It could do so again for a reason that will also continue, post defunding;  the existence of more than a thousand local public radio stations, each of which enjoys tax-exempt status. Their valuable licenses date to 1952, when they were issued by the Truman administration for “instructional purposes”. These are local non-profits which pay NPR for programming—which means that even defunding of direct federal grants to NPR central will not put a halt to taxpayer dollars flowing indirectly from “member stations.”

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Nor are those stations or NPR likely to lose their tax-exempt status—so valuable as a means of raising funds. Such a decision would have to be the result of action by the Internal Revenue Service—based on such matters as failing to operate in keeping with their exempt purpose. Hardly an easy case to make.  And even a non-tax-exempt NPR would not simply vanish; indeed, it could take advantage of its network of stations and its affluent listener base to sell lucrative advertising. There’s already an NPR Wine Club!

Instead of a quixotic “defund” campaign, Congress should pursue a different, more constructive course: serious oversight of its public broadcasting appropriations.  That might include hearings about bias similar to the dramatic hearings in which Ivy League presidents have been called to account for campus antisemitism.  Absent federal funding, there would be no opportunity for such oversight—which has simply not been taking place.  

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A few questions come to mind for members of the House Appropriations Labor, Health, Human Services and Education subcommittee, through which public broadcasting flows. What is NPR doing to increase the geographic and demographic diversity of its audience? Why does the network have no studios south of the Mason-Dixon line but only in New York and California? Should individual program grants require discussion by the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Currently, that board, on which I served, votes up or down on the budget as a whole, rather than holding hearings about NPR, “Frontline,” or the “PBS News Hour.” This is not to proposed editorial interference–but outsider reality checks.

Most broadly, it is worth asking what is the mission of NPR News—and the “PBS News Hour,” as well—in an era in which there is a cornucopia of news outlets, in a media environment so different from that of 1967.

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There is at least one possibility—supporting local news at a time when thousands of local newspapers are closing down their presses.  A reformed NPR should be the vehicle for voices from across the country – Christian conservatives as well as progressives, local elected officials as well as Rep. Adam Schiff—engaged in the issues affecting their communities and which also tell us about the nation as a whole. NPR should have been first to spot the opioid epidemic or the subprime mortgage fiasco. Instead, it’s an echo chamber for the same issues covered elsewhere, just with a liberal spin.

One might regard this as an effort at constructive criticism—and so it is.  But, in contrast to the dead end of defunding, it might make a difference.

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