By Paul Greenberg
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Let's see if I've got this right. According to NPR's official line, the greatest hope for objective news reporting on the American airwaves will be lost if its federal subsidy is eliminated. And it's quite a bargain for the taxpayers, too, for only 2 percent of its budget is federally funded. But like much of NPR's news, any such claim is incomplete at best, misleading at worse.
My first question is why, if NPR gets only 2 percent of its budget from the feds, or a measly $5 million out of its $145 million in revenues, it couldn't make up that mere 2 percent from private sources -- if its programming is as good as it says it is.
What's more, if NPR chose to support itself instead of depending on government handouts, it would at last be free of the (all too accurate) accusation from pesky types like me that it is propagandizing the American people with our own money.
So why doesn't NPR grow up and support itself?
Because, while NPR's direct subsidy may be only 2 percent of its revenues, the federal government, through its Corporation for Public Broadcasting, funds local public stations, which in turn pay fees to NPR for the programs it produces.
Those fees amount to some $63 million a year, or 43 percent of NPR's budget. That's quite a difference from the official claim of only 2 percent. And only too typical of the gap between NPR's political reporting and reality.
Other public funds flow to NPR via grants from the selfsame Corporation for Public Broadcasting and federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, which kick in still another 3 percent of NPR's revenues. Then there are all the grants to public stations from state and local governments, public universities and federal agencies like the Energy Department.
Talk about corporate welfare: NPR may speak of itself as a grass-roots organization designed for the little old lady in Peoria, but that's just its public line. When it talks to its advertisers -- excuse us, its underwriters, as they are known in NPRspeak -- it takes a different line. It flaunts demographic studies that paint a different picture of its average listener, who is described as a 50-year-old male with a managerial or professional job and a household income of $90,000 a year. Mr. Average NPR Listener is three times as likely as the average American to have attended college, and four times as likely to have gone to graduate school.
To quote Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald, who dug up these figures, the average NPR listener is "a lot more likely to be from Boston or San Francisco than Peoria or Topeka."
The roundabout way NPR collects its public funds doesn't mean it's any less dependent on the taxpayers. Just less than candid about it.
When it does a decent investigative job on its own funding, and levels with the American people about it, maybe NPR will have backed up its claim to offering objective news.
Until then, as with much of its reporting, there's a lot that NPR isn't telling us. Turns out, it's about as objective as Fox News. But that may be an unfair comparison. There's a big difference: Fox pays its own way. Glenn Beck might still be on the air if all of us were taxed to support his show. There is something salutary about making news outlets support themselves. It helps keep them in touch with reality.
NPR's disingenuousness, like its political prejudices, would be easier to take if We the People weren't paying for it. Those prejudices have been vividly illustrated of late by its treatment of Juan Williams, whom it dropped as a commentator for daring to comment, and its having to drop a couple of its top executives after their political biases were revealed on tape.
The folks who run NPR have every right to express their biases -- this is a free country, at least so far -- but they have no right, Fellow Americans, to use our own tax money to softsoap us. The case for cutting off its water is as simple as that. Let NPR earn its keep, like the rest of us inky wretches.
This is not to say that I haven't heard some good reporting and news analysis on NPR. I have. I've also been enlightened by some voices on Fox News. But that doesn't make Fox any less a generally right-wing outfit -- or NPR less a shill for left-wing (excuse me, progressive) causes. But Fox pays its own way -- and should.
Once upon a more thoughtful time, Americans recognized that government shouldn't be controlling news outlets. At the height of the Cold War, when it was imperative that America join the fight to combat Communist propaganda in Europe and around the world, outfits like the Voice of America were explicitly prohibited from directing their broadcasts to a domestic audience.
One of the most thoughtful voices for freedom in that struggle, Encounter magazine, was founded by the poet Stephen Spender and the godfather of American neoconservatism, Irving Kristol. Both those good men had come to realize that now was the time to come to the aid of their country and the West in general. Just as one of George Orwell's last decisions as the Cold War was beginning was to cooperate with British intelligence by drawing up a list of Communists, crypto-Communists and just fellow travelers whom he thought would bear watching in the event of a confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Encounter magazine, it turned out, was secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency -- good for the CIA! -- but it had to be aimed primarily at foreign readers and the source of its funds kept secret. Why? Because at the time it was still understood that an American government shouldn't be funding political news and comment for domestic consumption. It's just a matter of common sense -- a prudent safeguard against being brainwashed by our own government.
But like so many other fine qualities, common sense seems to have been eclipsed in these times.