In Defense of NPR's Government Funding


"It's time for NPR to get off the government payroll," Hamilton Nolan writes. As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government," he writes, "it will be forced to appease and cater to Congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war."

First let's step back and dig into NPR's public financing. The truth is that NPR is hardly on the government payroll in the first place. It receives only 2% of direct funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting within the federal government. The lion's share of NPR's revenue comes from distribution services, sponsorships and station programming fees, as the graph below shows.. As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government," he writes, "it will be forced to appease and cater to Congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war."


But that's where it gets complicated. Public radio stations that pay NPR for content receive about 10% of their funding -- about $90 million -- from CBP. Public radio stations also receive about 6% of their support from state and local governments. Universities and foundations, which often receive government support, account for another 20-25% of their revenue. The upshot is that public radio stations that play NPR programming receive one of every six dollars from direct government support, and even more from indirect government spending.

Is this a great national disaster? Smarter people than I have said yes. I say it isn't. 

Smart in-depth reporting of public policy issues has almost never been self-financing. In the halcyon days of fat newspapers, Afghanistan scoops were cross-subsidized by the auto and classifieds section. Now that readers can go to Carfax for auto news and Craigslist for apartments, newspapers are losing that cross-subsidies model and the challenge of paying for a fleet of serious reporters is becoming more naked.

Gawker's Nick Denton explained to The Atlantic's Jim Fallows that he struggles to come up with market-oriented solutions for "the worthy topics" in journalism. "Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables," he said. "Nor does anyone want to pay [via advertising] to encourage people to eat their vegetables." Paying for serious, reported journalism, he continued, might require local volunteer efforts and donations by philanthropists.

In other words, we have a market inefficiency. Even the most prurient minds in the biz acknowledge that the advertorial DEMAND for serious journalism is insufficient to cover the necessary SUPPLY of serious journalism. Somebody has to close the gap: Like philanthropists, non-profits, and government. All of three of those benefactors could theoretically compromise news-gathering. I see no evidence that one is so much worse than the other, or that NPR is failing the public because of the existence of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

If anything, publicly supported media like the BBC, PBS and NPR are more trusted than "independent" news like Fox or MSNBC. If we supposedly think publicly supported news is so discredited by its relationship to government, what does it mean that we consider privately supported news even worse?
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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