A BILL pulling the plug on federal funding for National Public Radio was thwarted last week when the lame-duck Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives voted down a Republican effort to bring the measure to the floor. Introduced last summer by Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn, the legislation would bar NPR and its local affiliates from spending federal dollars on NPR programming. Of course there was never any chance that a bill targeting one of the nation's most prominent left-of-center institutions would pass while Democrats still controlled the House. But a GOP majority is taking over in January, and ending NPR's taxpayer subsidies ought to be high on its to-do list.
NPR tarnished its reputation last month when it abruptly fired commentator Juan Williams, an engaging liberal who had conceded in an interview that he gets "worried" and "nervous" when he boards a plane and sees passengers "who are in Muslim garb and . . . identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims." Williams is nobody's idea of a bigot -- among other things, he is the author of Eyes on the Prize, a famous history of the Civil Rights Movement -- and NPR's reaction was widely regarded as highhanded, dogmatic, and hypocritical. It only made matters worse when NPR CEO Vivian Schiller told an audience in Atlanta that Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." (She later apologized for that remark.)
In the wake of such a public-relations fiasco, one might have expected NPR to react to the House vote protecting its government funding with a modest statement of appreciation and perhaps an acknowledgment that its critics have raised some legitimate points. Instead it issued a statement so pompous and illogical that it could have been drafted in the Ministry of Truth.
"Today, good judgment prevailed as Congress rejected a move to assert government control over the content of news," it declared. "Public radio's value in fostering an informed society has never been more critical. Our growing audience shows that we are meeting that need. It is imperative for federal funding to continue to ensure that this essential tool of democracy remains available to all."
The arrogance of that statement is exceeded only speciousness. "A move to assert government control"? Lamborn's bill was just the opposite: a move to end the government's entangling financial alliance with NPR, leaving it responsible for its own budget and programming. If NPR's "value . . . has never been more critical," why isn't its "growing audience" supporting it directly? And if NPR is such an "essential tool of democracy," how did the republic survive for so long without it?
Notwithstanding NPR's haughty air of entitlement ("it is imperative for federal funding to continue"), there are at least four reasons why its taxpayer subsidies should end.
1. They aren't fair. Other radio stations and networks, from Air America to Clear Channel to Univision to Westwood One, must sink or swim in a competitive market. They survive only if listeners and advertisers value what they do. Uncle Sam doesn't keep them afloat with tens of millions of dollars annually in direct and indirect subsidies. If they can operate without corporate welfare, NPR can too.
Given the vast array of audio offerings, from terrestrial and satellite radio to internet broadcasting and podcasts, NPR's tens of millions in annual subsidies cannot be justified.
2. They aren't appropriate. In a free society, especially one with a robust tradition of press freedom, the very idea of government-underwritten media should be anathema. When news organizations depend on largesse from the treasury, there is inevitably a price paid in objectivity, fairness, and journalistic independence.
3. They aren't necessary. NPR's partisans claim that public broadcasting provides valuable news and educational content that listeners can't get anywhere else. That may have been a plausible argument in 1970. It is utterly implausible today, when audio programming of every description can be found amid a vast and dizzying array of outlets: terrestrial and satellite radio, internet broadcasting, podcasts and audio downloads.
4. They aren't affordable. At a time of trillion-dollar federal deficits and a national debt of nearly $14 trillion, NPR's government subsidies cannot possibly be justified. All the more so when public broadcasting attracts a fortune in private funding, from the gifts of innumerable "listeners like you" to the $200 million bequeathed to NPR by the late Joan Kroc in 2003.
More than anything else, the incoming 112th Congress has a mandate to stem the flood of red ink that is drowning Washington in debt. The tax dollars consumed by NPR are admittedly a drop in the enormous fiscal bucket. But if Congress can't even do away with a frill like subsidies for public radio, how will it stand a prayer of shoving far more formidable gluttons away from the federal trough?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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