March 7, 2011

March 7, 2011 | Commentary on Political Thought

Salvaging Government Journalism

It’s SOS time at National Public Radio — “save our subsidies.”

Today, NPR will put CEO Vivian Schiller in front of a sympathetic National Press Club audience to plead for Congress to spare its funding. And if the announcement is anything to go by, Ms. Schiller will tug at the heart strings by insisting that “rural and economically distressed communities” will be hardest hit by this “significant blow” against public broadcasting.

But it might be too little, too late, and way too manipulative this time. National Public Radio is too anachronistic, too expensive, and, yes, way too liberal for the new Congress to show it sympathy.

NPR could have saved itself years ago, perhaps, by arresting its slide into liberal orthodoxy after the GOP first went after it. But it was too blind (and too smug, maybe?) to concede that it was growing increasingly and stridently biased. No institution that touches the public dime can live long by being partisan.

So now it has dragged down PBS, too, which has done a somewhat better job of keeping its biases in check. It has culminated in the new House of Representatives’ voting last month to cut out the entire $460 million budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which purports to oversee both. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., N.C.) also introduced a bill stripping the CPB of funding last week. PBS has done its lobbying bit by sending Arthur to Congress. Now it’s Ms. Schiller’s turn.

Alas for Ms. Schiller, the arguments against saving the CPB funding are too strong. That they take the public dime at all is, in fact, one of the fundamental problems with NPR and PBS.

The very idea of government journalism falls apart over the following Catch-22: Any institution that uses taxpayer money must be accountable to the political representatives of those taxpayers; a journalist, however, must never be accountable to a politician. On this contradiction alone, NPR should lose its funding (though cultural and educational programming at PBS could in principle survive).

NPR, of course, would counter that the CPB solves this Catch-22 by providing a political “firewall” for NPR’s journalists. All the CPB has done, however, has been to insulate NPR from criticism that might have helped it while failing to correct its problems. What NPR needed was adult supervision; instead it got Vivian Schiller, a former New York Times executive under whose tutelage NPR veered further and further left, took $1.8 million from the liberal millionaire George Soros, and fired commentator Juan Williams for things he said on Fox News.

If a debate I recently had on an NPR affiliate is anything to go by, NPR will also argue that, no, the American people don’t think it is biased. My debate was with Patrick Butler, board member of the Public Media Association, the group hastily put together last month to conduct the lobbying effort. He left me convinced that NPR will pour all its energy into persuading enough Republicans to spare its funding one more time.

It will not, however, do anything to bring a better balance to its newsroom. It is, after all, a newsroom that counts among its reporters Dina Temple-Raston, who covers national security and counterterrorism despite authoring a book on civil liberties with Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU; Peter Overby, who follows campaign financing despite hailing from the ultra-left group Common Cause; and Nina Totenberg, whose liberal political opinions are aired for all to hear every week on TV news shows.

And who’s on the right? The day after Juan Williams was fired, the Washington Post reported that NPR had just gotten rid of its “most visible right leaning voice.” Juan Williams? “All Things Considered,” indeed.

In fact, the debate over NPR’s bias is over. As NPR itself reports, the battle over its funding now breaks completely along partisan lines. On one side are the Media Research Center, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.); on the other are Soros, Moveon.org, and Free Press.

If it had had visionary leadership, NPR could have prevented this fissure. It might have been able to spare the axe for the anachronism of government journalism in the age of thousands of broadcasting and Internet outlets. Instead it got what it has now.

NPR has a good business model with its membership approach, which Craiglist founder Craig Newmark has praised as being stronger footing for the long run than the commercial option. That has been the positive side of Ms. Schiller’s tenure.

The membership model has the added advantage of being voluntary, not coercive, as taxes are. This will mean, of course, that NPR will come to increasingly depend on the likes of Soros. But hey, it’s his dime, not ours.

Michael Gonzalez is vice president for communications at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mike Gonzalez Senior Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in National Review Online