The Case For NPR Giving Up Federal Funding

As you are no doubt aware, an O'Keefian "sting" operation, in which National Public Radio's senior vice president for fundraising was caught on tape disparaging the Tea Party, has rocked NPR and the blogosphere, costing several people with the surname Schiller their livelihoods. It comes at an inopportune time for NPR, whose CEO -- the aforementioned, now-cashiered Vivian Schiller -- had just this week appeared at the National Press Club to celebrate the organization's 40th anniversary and, hopefully, put their recent troubles over the firing of Juan Williams behind them.

At her Press Club appearance, Vivian Schiller made a "public case against Republican efforts to cut federal funding for public broadcasting." This cast an interesting contrast with caught-on-tape Ron Schiller (no relation, in case you were wondering), who said on the O'Keefe video, "It is very clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding."

This is, to my mind, the more interesting part of the story. And today, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan makes a pretty excellent argument that Schiller (Ron, not Vivian) was absolutely right. Says Nolan: "As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government, it will be forced to appease and cater to Congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war. And--newsflash--NPR will never be able to appease the Republican Party. It simply won't happen."

NPR has the resources, and the talent, to compete with any news organization in America. But as the events of this week have demonstrated, it doesn't have the freedom to conduct itself as it sees fit. And it never will, as long as it takes government funding. It doesn't matter whether NPR is truly hostile to Republican interests; as long as some Republicans perceive it that way--or know that they can score political points back home by doing so--they'll use NPR as a political football. They don't want to pay for something they dislike. So don't make them.

I think this is right, and it goes back to something I've had the occasion to say about NPR on multiple occasions in the past -- NPR seems to have a crisis every time they encounter a situation where their contributors and staff are revealed to be human beings who have points of view on various and sundry matters. When Juan Williams expressed a controversial opinion, NPR didn't know what to do! Their response wasn't to offer up a countering point of view or to have a debate or to otherwise behave as if we are all free people living in a free society -- it was to fire Williams over the phone.

NPR is hardly the only media organization with these problems, but they're the only one who a) keeps tripping headlong over them in headline-making pratfalls and b) have an extant need to keep a bunch of politicians happy. At some point, you have to wonder if the spectacles aren't exacerbated by the dependency.

As Nolan points out, NPR has put out that without the slice of the funding pie that the Corporation For Public Broadcasting receives from the government "up to 100 stations could go dark." Nolan doesn't buy it:

Is there no re-allocation of funds that could prevent such a massacre? A 10% reduction in funding doesn't necessarily mean 100 dead stations; it can just as easily mean a 10% budget cut at each station. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, NPR cut its workforce by 7% in a massive round of layoffs. And look: two years later, NPR and its member stations are still here.

From that perspective, it seems to me that even if NPR absorbs the financial hit from losing their federal funding, they'll still be in better straits than, say, every single newspaper in America. And if ridding themselves of the need to please lawmakers helps them to rediscover what it's like to be actual human beings who think actual thoughts about actual things, so much the better.

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