Drop NPR Federal Funding

I’m in favor National Public Radio (NPR) losing its federal funding.

It’s not for the reasons you may think. I am not a tea-party conservative railing against NPR’s supposed liberal tilt. To the contrary, I am solidly planted on the left side of the fence. Still, when all is said and done, I believe NPR will be better off if it frees itself from the shackles of its federal support.

NPR states that “While NPR does not receive any direct federal funding, it does receive a small number of competitive grants from CPB and federal agencies like the Department of Education and the Department of Commerce. This funding amounts to approximately 2% of NPR’s overall revenues.”

According to other information on NPR’s website, NPR’s total revenue for 2010 was around $180,000,000. Two percent of this amounts $3.6 million. This is nothing to sneeze at. But there’s a cost to accepting this money, a cost that I believe is untenable in the current political climate.

The cost is that it pressures NPR into potentially ill-advised decisions in an attempt to appear politically neutral. In the end, this attempt too often works against the very goal it seeks. They wind up distorting news coverage rather than maintaining a balance.

Attempting to appease the right is a lose-lose battle in any case. No matter what NPR does (short of putting Glenn Beck in charge of programming), conservatives will maintain their belief that NPR favors progressives. Meanwhile, progressives are nearly equally disgruntled that NPR isn’t as liberal as its critics complain. “If only it were so,” they lament.

The problem is that “balanced” coverage does not equate to always giving both sides of a debate equal time and consideration. Rather, it means that you do your best not to let personal biases influence what you cover and how you cover it.

If one side of debate consistently presents false arguments while the other stays closer to the truth, the media should make this clear. You aren’t being “fair” to your listeners by giving both sides equal time (such as by interviewing both a Republican and a Democratic senator) with little or no challenge to what they are saying. In other words, when someone makes a claim that Barack Obama is not really a U.S. citizen, assuming you decide to cover this lunacy at all, you don’t just say “Thank you, and now for an opposing view…” You challenge the lunacy. You offer a critical assessment, based on the facts.

To be clear, I like NPR. It is the only radio or TV news media that I consistently listen to. And they do often follow exactly what I recommend. But not as much as I believe they should. Or would, if they were not worried about public perception, political fallout, accusations of bias and potential loss of federal funding.

Of course, to be fair, I believe you should do this for both sides of the political spectrum. However, there is reason to believe that this will cast conservatives in a negative light more often than progressives. As pointed out in a Mother Jones article:

“It all raises the question: Do left and right differ in any meaningful way when it comes to biases in processing information, or are we all equally susceptible? There are some clear differences. Science denial today is considerably more prominent on the political right—once you survey climate and related environmental issues, anti-evolutionism, attacks on reproductive health science by the Christian right, and stem-cell and biomedical matters. More tellingly, anti-vaccine positions are virtually nonexistent among Democratic officeholders today—whereas anti-climate-science views are becoming monolithic among Republican elected officials.”

If this means that a media outlet will be critical of Republicans more often than Democrats, so be it. This is not being biased. It’s being honest.

Actually, as I’ve already indicated, even if NPR offered such critical analyses equally for Republicans and Democrats, it would still be accused of bias by conservatives. That’s because conservatives apparently view even the slightest challenge, however reasonable, as an attack on their entire political viewpoint. A crystal clear example of this came up in a recent segement of NPR’s On the Media that asked “Does NPR have a liberal bias?

During the show, an interview of Intel CEO Paul Ortellini by NPR’s Michele Norris was raised by a conservative spokesperson. In the interview, Otellini proposed a tax holiday for any company that built a new factory in the U.S. Norris replied, “Can this country afford that right now?” This was taken as proof (as also cited in other conservative media, such as a newsbusters.org article) of NPR’s “liberal bias.”

Say what? Ms. Norris was simply asking a question that anyone who potentially had the slightest disagreement with the CEO’s proposal would have asked. This is what journalists do. It’s called doing their job. Mr. Ortellini was given an opportunity to respond — fully and with respect. What’s wrong with that? [As an aside, how many times has Bill O’Reilly interrupted, cut off, yelled out and insulted someone on his show whom he disagreed with? If you’re looking for bias, why not start there?] The presumption is that Ms. Norris would have asked a similar question if she later interviewed someone who claimed the solution to our economic problems was to radically raise taxes on all U.S. corporations. Her response would likely be along the lines of: “Can the country afford that right now? Might it not lead to more corporations leaving the U.S. to go overseas?” This would not represent a conservative bias — just as the question asked to Mr. Ortellini did not represent a liberal bias.

I can only assume that people weaned on Fox News have come to believe that the only way for a media outlet to appear “balanced” is to never challenge positions conservatives support while always attacking the ones they oppose. Although not as extreme, MSNBC viewers can be guilty of the same transgressions for liberal positions. Maybe in cable news’ universe, that’s how things work. But that’s not a yardstick worth picking up. In such an Orwellian universe, fairness becomes evidence of bias.

Ira Glass made some of these same points in his defense of NPR. But the question remains, what should NPR do beyond making a spirited defense? If the choice ever comes down to sacrificing sound principles of journalism in order to maintain federal funding, then it’s time to abandon federal funding. Perhaps we’re not quite at this point yet. By why push it? Unless NPR could not survive without the federal funding, it is time to seriously consider whether it’s worth keeping. I vote no.

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