Last month, Republicans in Congress called an “emergency meeting” to propose an end to federal funding for NPR. In light of mounting concern over reducing the federal budget deficit and the need for continued jobs growth, the urgency and importance attributed to this proposal — which affects one ten-thousandth of 1% of the federal budget — is disappointing. NPR provides valuable space for the development of news and entertainment radio that serves the public interest, allowing creative risks and serious news coverage that might not be supported by the market alone.
Undoubtedly, the question of whether to provide federal funding for public media is complex, plagued by controversy surrounding NPR’s alleged liberal bias and the difficulty of assessing the impact (and need) for federal funding. It is a question worthy of debate. However, de-funding NPR to help deficit reduction does injustice to both the deficit and public media platfroms. The key factors in reducing the budget deficit involve taxation, economic growth, and spending on entitlements and defense. And, as my PolicyMic colleague Jordan Wolf’s article rightly identifies, “the question of whether to keep [NPR and public television programs] must turn on their value to our democracy.”
NPR’s mission is “to create a more informed public — one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.” With a mission of attracting advertising dollars, commercial media may be pulled towards sound bites, horse race election coverage (vs. in-depth discussion of issues), and fluff pieces, whereas NPR is shielded from the market’s pull towards attracting more listeners by appealing to the lowest common denominator. NPR’s programming is unique compared to commercial offerings. Additionally, NPR plays an important role in providing programming to rural communities that are underserved by commercial media options.
Despite an ostensibly neutral mission of promoting a more informed populace, the nature of NPR programs’ discussion of news and events makes them especially susceptible to being perceived as biased. Those who decry taxpayers’ money supporting news coverage with which they disagree fail to recognize that, as much as we may hate to admit it, taxpayers in a democracy must face the pain of supporting all sorts of things with which they may disagree. In any case, alleging bias in NPR’s coverage does not amount to an argument for the elimination of public media. If true, such a flaw would suggest the need to reform NPR’s media coverage, not eliminate it altogether. A valid argument for the elimination of NPR needs to counter the contention that federal funding should be supplied to support NPR’s mission of promoting a more informed citizenry.
Thus, politicians considering the NPR funding debate should not call out the deficit or the controversy over liberal bias, but should instead focus on the merits of providing a commercial free space for the development of news and entertainment in the public interest — the merits of Morning Edition and A Prairie Home Companion. In light of these considerations, arguments for defunding NPR may still prevail, most notably the possibility that it may be able to survive through voluntary contributions alone, or an argument in favor of “no frills” government.” If so, at least NPR will have been disbanded with an honest debate over the true issues at hand.
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