It's Time For NPR to Get Off the Government Payroll

NPR gets about 2% of its direct funding from the U.S. government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For NPR's member stations, CPB funding is about 10% of their total, with other federal, state, and local government sources kicking in another 6%.

This relatively tiny piece of money has been called "a critical cornerstone of public media." That was the stated position of Vivian Schiller—the NPR CEO up until today, when she was forced out, thanks to that government funding.

It's not worth it. As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government, it will be forced to appease and cater to Congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war. And—newsflash—NPR will never be able to appease the Republican Party. It simply won't happen. The New York Times, America's finest overall news organization, is hated by Republicans. And Fox News, America's most fictional newsgathering operation, is beloved by Republicans. Appeasement is not on the horizon, unless NPR plans to become Fox News.

To argue over whether NPR is "liberal" is to waste everyone's time. Yes, it's liberal, and it does great journalism, and I wouldn't have it any other way. There's a very good reason why American news organizations have a long tradition of not accepting money from the government: because of exactly what NPR is going through right now. The Juan Williams fiasco. This week's farcical James O'Keefe "sting" that revealed that a non-news NPR employee held mainstream political opinions. And now, the (apparently forced) resignation of the CEO. The reason these were huge political controversies rather than mere run-of-the-mill media stories is that NPR is on the government payroll, and is therefore a voluntary target for every angry taxpayer with an asshole and an opinion. (All of them.)

Last week, NYT editor Bill Keller talked a bit of trash about Fox News. And if some Republicans in Congress don't like what he said? They can go fuck themselves, because what he said is true, and the NYT isn't going to lose any subscriptions over it. Fox News can defend itself quite well in the free media market. It's perfectly appropriate for news organizations of different ideological stripes to argue with one another, or to assert superiority, or just to poke fun at Rupert Murdoch's trench-like face wrinkles. It's part of what makes the media fun. Not satisfying everyone; saying what you believe, and backing it up.

NPR has the resources, and the talent, to compete with any news organization in America. But as the events of this week have demonstrated, it doesn't have the freedom to conduct itself as it sees fit. And it never will, as long as it takes government funding. It doesn't matter whether NPR is truly hostile to Republican interests; as long as some Republicans perceive it that way—or know that they can score political points back home by doing so—they'll use NPR as a political football. They don't want to pay for something they dislike. So don't make them.

NPR reportedly believes that "up to 100 stations could go dark without" CPB funding. Really? Is there no re-allocation of funds that could prevent such a massacre? A 10% reduction in funding doesn't necessarily mean 100 dead stations; it can just as easily mean a 10% budget cut at each station. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, NPR cut its workforce by 7% in a massive round of layoffs. And look: two years later, NPR and its member stations are still here.

A 10% budget bump isn't worth having to make sure that your executive team is acceptable to John Boehner's most conservative colleagues. Get over it. If it means layoffs are necessary, it's worth it. Set yourself free, NPR. Save the insufferable political song and dance for A Prairie Home Companion.

[Photo: Flickr]