Best Opinions on NPR and Government Funding

Republicans move to strip public funds from the news organization

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Since last month's widely-criticized firing of Juan Williams, some conservatives have been itching to defund NPR as soon as they gained a congressional majority in the midterms. True to form, House Republicans have announced that they are planning a floor vote aiming to sever the news organization from the small amount of public funding that it currently enjoys. NPR, these Republicans gleefully note, topped the list of the GOP's weekly "YouCut" contest, in which the public can vote on spending cuts it would like to see the House vote on. Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint and Eric Cantor are among the heavyweights pressing for the defunding, while a nationwide poll conducted last month suggests that public is slightly opposed to the potential effort. In light of the House movement, here's an overview of the most substantive opinions on NPR since the Juan Williams firestorm engulfed public debate.

  • Defunding NPR Is A Waste of Time For the GOP  Conceding that, yes, he does listen to the "simply great radio" of the "enemy broadcasts" The National Review's Jonah Goldberg argues that NPR should be defunded, but "Republicans would be crazy to make this a priority after the midterm elections." The organization has spent years shoring up their "budgetary bunkers" and "busting them would take an enormous amount of time and effort, with minuscule reward. Indeed, Democrats would love it if Republicans allowed themselves to be baited into what would essentially be a culture-war fight over public radio (the last 'war on Big Bird' was a disaster for the GOP)."
  • To Thrive It Needs to Kill Public Funding  Mapping out a way forward, Slate's Jack Shafer notes that NPR has been heading down this path for a while (it's why they've shortened their name from National Public Radio to just NPR). By now, he argues, NPR must be sick of being a political pawn and might even enjoy being "liberated" from the burden of public funding. In order for it to thrive, Shafer proposes this: "Kill those annoying underwriter announcements and replace them with real advertisements for real money. If the taint of pure commerce is too great for public radio to tolerate (and I don't think it is), stations could go to work and build an endowment on the back of the only real asset they have: their spectrum, a scarce and valuable resource that they are rich with."
  • NPR Isn't the Same As Fox News: That Distinction Matters  In lieu of commenting on Juan Williams, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows pens an essay in defense of the organization and argues that it and Fox News are not "two sides to the same coin." Fox News, he concedes, is "unmatched" at applying "a unified political-cultural world view to the unfolding events of the day." That is not NPR's mission. It is "one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization" that actually gathers information. "NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced," he writes.
  • A Rare Breed in Media Today: It Speaks To Its Audience Like Adults  NPR has a valuable, multiculturalist perspective because it is one of the few outfits that "extended its feelers to tap even the faintest faraway dot on the map with a moving story to tell, navigating near-impossible terrain if necessary," observes Vanity Fair's James Wolcott. While "blowhards" like Newt Gingrich have perpetually tried to take down NPR, they've been unsuccessful. Here's Wolcott's theory on why: "In the era of Sarah Palin Superstar, bashing NPR no longer gets the primitive, tribal juices going on the right, not with such a bumper crop of Muslims and illegal immigrants for Tea Party panderers to sink their gums into. Mosques are so much easier to hobgoblinize—to borrow one of the late William F. Buckley Jr.’s coinages—than the rest stop on the dial bringing home Morning Edition."
  • Republicans May Try, But Defunding NPR Is Harder Than It Looks  Conservatives new rallying cry is looking a lot like their old ralling cry, notes Politico's Keach Hagey, but NPR opponents may not realize that Congress doesn't directly fund the organization: It funds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting "which distributes money through a variety of channels, some of which lead to NPR. But NPR only gets about 2 percent of its funding from the CPB." If the GOP aims to "punish" NPR, defunding the CPB is an "imprecise" way to do it. "NPR says that it gets only about 2 percent of its annual budget, currently $161.8 million, from the CPB. However, this does not count the 40 percent of its budget that comes from member stations, who themselves get $90 million from the CPB, according to the CPB," Hagey reports.
  • The Critique of NPR Is the Same Argument Made About All Media  Namely, that their main news programs "managed to miss the biggest stories of the last decade: the errors of going to war in Iraq and the endlessly inflating economic bubble that eventually laid us low," figures Bill McKibben in a lengthy, appreciative essay in The New York Review of Books. At the same time, the best early coverage of the housing and financial bubble came Ira Glass's This American Life, he writes. So NPR's shows deserve "lavish praise," though they may have aimed too much for political balance, losing the interest of some listeners who preferred left-leaning shows like Democracy Now or The Takeaway. Being in the political center is "not a particularly interesting place to be," writes McKibben.
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