NPR and Federal Funding

One of the the main reasons why the philosophy of political conservatism, as far as I understand it, is generally reluctant to embrace change is that it attempts to foster an awareness of what’s worth preserving in the world as it now exists and a sensitivity to how easy it is to inadvertently lose existing institutions, practices, and traditions. While it’s certainly possible change has the potential to make things better, without carefully contemplating all the unintended consequences, there’s the strong possibility that it may make things worse.

Take, for example, the widely publicized conservative opposition to the recent healthcare bill: opposition to the bill seemed to be fairly ubiquitous among conservatives, even though very few people that opposed the bill are currently happy with the way that health insurance in the U.S. operates right now, even assuming they have it. The way of thinking conservatives seemed to advocate – nearly indistinguishable, unfortunately, in all the hysteria surrounding this particular issue – is that even as bad as things are right now, if we do something, odds are good that the unintended consequences we cause as a result may well make it worse. The evil we know may be less evil than the evil we don’t know; if it isn’t, well, at least we know it.

It’s not an accident that this way of looking at politics and, presumably, life in general sounds vaguely like something out of Lake Wobegon, and it’s not difficult to see why this sort of philosophy would appeal to, say, a farming community: if the community exists at all, it’s likely been successful enough to know that farming techniques that work, and betting a year’s harvest on an attempt to make things better carries a certain amount of risk. Consequently, this way of life means that change for change’s sake isn’t generally embraced with the same degree of enthusiasm it would be in the English or Philosophy department of a university, where there generally aren’t life-threatening consequences if changes don’t work as anticipated. In a similar vein, the town that I’m from has a large population of aeronautical engineers, who by nature tend to be conservative for related but probably equally obvious reasons.

Whether or not this principle of conservatism is worth applying to more than just farmers or aeronautical engineers, we’ll have to leave to the larger brains to discuss at some other time. Sadly, though, it’s difficult to critique this principle on the results that it has brought in the political realm, as it seems to be only inconsistently applied: to take one example, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this principle should result in more of a willingness to protect the environment than is typically demonstrated. Sadly, this sort of inconsistency seems to be rampant with regards to many positions: unlike the previous administration would have us believe, traditional conservative thought doesn’t have much to do with excessive military intervention overseas, and (at least in recent years) the GOP seems far more interested in reducing the federal deficit when they’re a minority party. Of course, this sort of behavior isn’t limited to just Republicans: Democrats, it’s worth pointing out, seem more anti-war when there’s a Republican president responsible for it.

It’s ironic, then, that it’s conservatives that are looking to drop Federal funding for NPR, although, to be fair, in doing so, they’re embracing another conservative principle that is very much in vogue at the moment: the government shouldn’t interfere in the free market. Still, it’s interesting to note that – as far as I know, anyway – none of the politicians that are advocating dropping the funding from NPR are proposing doing the same thing for, say, Voice of America. Apparently broadcasting news internationally is more of a justifiable public good than broadcasting news to Americans.

Unsurprisingly, most of the criticism of NPR seems to be from conservative politicians who feel that their viewpoint is not adequately represented on NPR, and I’ve always gotten the impression that their actual goal has not been to save money balancing the budget, but rather to shut NPR down if they possibly can. (If they really wanted to balance the budget or go after government interference in the free market, I’m wondering why they don’t attempt to take on farm subsidies.)

My suspicion, though, is that making a change like this will result in some unintended consequences. Admittedly, this is just speculation, but perhaps it’s worth thinking about what those changes would be:

First of all, because of the way that NPR’s business model operates, the loss of Federal funding is probably not going to shut NPR down. However, it would result in the loss of individual member stations in some smaller cities. NPR’s business model is a bit complex, and the much maligned federal funding composes a higher percentage of the budget of the individual member stations that it does NPR in general.

In general, the way the business model works is that the individual member stations distribute various NPR shows that are produced either at NPR or from other NPR stations, although individual member stations are given considerable leeway in deciding which shows they’d like to run.

(Digression: if you’ve ever listened to NPR during their week of pledge drives, you’ve probably heard – about 30,000 times per day – that they’d like you to come down and tell them what shows that you like, and if you make a donation, you’re encouraged – or at least allowed – to make a contribution to the show that you like the most. The broadcasting, in other words, is determined by people at the local station based directly on feedback from the listeners. In other words, it seems to be more directly based on what people like, and not necessarily just what people listen to, as is typically the model for commercial television stations. These seem similar, but there’s a difference: witness, recently, the lack of a response from anyone when Two and a Half Men went off the air, and keep in mind that it was the most popular sitcom on television.)

The individual member stations pay NPR for that programming or come up with their own content, but the budgets of the individual stations are separate from the budget of NPR itself. The majority of federal funding goes to the individual member stations, and if Congress cuts NPR’s budget, it’s those stations – and not the national organization – that’s going to go under.

However, it’s worth noting that the NPR board (the board that fired Vivian Schiller, in what was almost certainly an attempt to keep Congress from pulling NPR’s funding) is actually controlled by the member stations . . . those same stations that need Federal funding.

There’s a conflict of interest here, though, because with the advent of podcasts, iTunes, etc., the national organization of NPR is becoming less and less dependent on its member stations. If you’ve listened to podcasts of Prairie Home Companion or downloaded the CarTalk app for your iPhone, you’re getting content directly from NPR, and you’re not supporting your local station.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing from NPR’s perspective, although if this is how the majority of their content will be distributed in the future, something of an organizational shakeup should probably be in the works: currently, it seems that, given the people on the NPR Board of Directors, the board is understandably more concerned with the needs of the member stations than with the entire organization.

What may be more clear at this point is that the budget concerns of the local stations is probably what led to Schiller’s resignation, and not the budget concerns of NPR as a whole. I suspect this also helps to explain why some people (for example, the fund-raiser that O’Keefe filmed) can claim NPR doesn’t need Federal funding, and the insistence of the local stations that they do.

Secondly, it seems that the Federal government has a long and occasionally contentious record of funding things that are perceived as a public good. It’s a given that there’s substantial disagreement about what exactly constitutes the public good, and exactly just how much the government should fund, but very few excepting Jeffersonian libertarians seem to think the entire idea of public good should be tossed out the window.

One of the basic prerequisites for a democracy to function well is an educated citizenry, and if public education doesn’t qualify as a public good, it’s unlikely that anything else will, either. As Churchill memorably put it, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” and to the extent that NPR contributes to the education of the American public, it’s helping to allay Churchill’s concerns, here, and the education of the citizenry seems to be an obvious public good.

I don’t think it’s difficult to categorize NPR as educational, especially given that most other news coverage is something of a race to the bottom: cable news is, just by virtue of its medium, in direct competition with a large number of shows that are pure entertainment. As a result, CNN or Fox News generally have a tendency to be sensationalist in order to attract casual viewers that would otherwise be watching, oh, Two and a Half Men, perhaps. The stories that they cover seem to be driven by what will cause most people to tune in, and the format and presentation of the following “news” is just as much indebted to the entertainment that it competes with than it is any serious analysis of the issues. Otherwise, frankly, we’d be getting more coverage of how the Egyptian army is beating protesters, and probably a bit less coverage of Charlie Sheen.

Quite a bit of the difference between cable news and NPR is due to the difference in the medium in which they’re presented: a cable news show that demands no more of its viewers than does a sitcom is not likely to present anything other than a superficial examination of the issues: complex issues take time to explain. A show on the radio like All Things Considered can take the time to report the story thoroughly. The average listener (judging by my own admittedly limited experience) is likely sitting in their car listening to it, or listening to it while they’re cooking dinner, or listening to it while sitting in bed while deciding whether or not to get up and go to work; consequently, they’re less likely to change the channel. (Channel surfing may be an American institution while watching television, but it seems that radio is largely exempt from this phenomenon.) If the same program was on television, your average viewer might be less inclined to listen to a show that doesn’t deliver news stories in sound bytes.

Lastly, it’s not entirely clear that receiving Federal funds doesn’t keep NPR more to the center than where they would be otherwise, and if this is true, it’s possible that cutting Federal funding would give more leeway to the fundraisers for which O’Keefe has such an affinity.

To explain: NPR’s individual journalists in the field, by most accounts that I’ve seen, seem to be more concerned with removing bias and reporting as objectively as possible as just about anyone else out there: keep in mind that NPR, more than any other network, gave all the presidential candidates a fair hearing back in 2008. However diligently individual reporters can guard against bias, though, it can still creep into the news as a result of which stories you’re reporting, and those decisions are likely not in the hands of the individual journalists.

For all of the negative publicity that NPR has seen recently, it’s worth pointing out that none of it has been a critique of individual reporters or their ability to convey the news. Instead, it’s been the higher-ups and fundraisers, who may actually be more concerned about receiving Federal funding than they’ve let on. While I don’t see any reason why Federal funding makes the individual reporters feel an added sense of duty to be as objective as possible, I can’t help but wonder if Federal funding doesn’t have some sort of influence that draws some programming closer to the center than it would be otherwise.

One of the most valuable contributions of postmodernism is the observation that it’s impossible for anyone to be completely objective: whether we like it or not, we all are speaking from within the narratives that we have been raised and from which we understand the world. While this may be true, it’s a tragic result that most news outlets have by and large abandoned any attempt to be objective. NPR – it seems to me – at least still tries, and even if they haven’t found complete objectivity, it seems that they’ve at least found a middle ground that gets them equal amounts of both hate mail and complements from both sides of the aisle.

(Bit of a digression and/or disclaimer: it’s worth pointing out, though, that this may not be true of individual shows that aren’t part of NPR news, proper, but are produced for NPR by member stations or who knows what else: for example, if you’re a conservative – or even a moderate anything – that has tried to listen to Democracy Now!, the resulting frustration of listening to far-left descriptions of world events may have caused you to put your fist through your car stereo. Still, they’ve had some good interviews on there, and Amy Goodman, regardless of her political affiliation, is an unusually good interviewer. In fact, Goodman’s interview of Andrew Bacevich was my introduction to Bacevich’s paleoconservative way of looking at foreign policy, and I’d highly recommend his books. Not all the shows are like this, though, and my own experience has been that Democracy Now! is more the exception than the rule.)


So what can we conclude from all this? I’m not entirely sure: I’d like to live in a world that NPR could exist in its current form without having to get funding from the Federal government, but so far, I don’t think we’re there. Similarly, it would be nice if there was enough of a market for art that the National Endowment for the Arts wouldn’t be necessary, but I’m pretty sure we’re not there, either.

I’m somewhat skeptical of politicians who claim that they’re de-funding NPR in an attempt to balance the budget, but don’t have the courage to take on more popular programs that actually absorb the weight of that budget: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, National Defense, farm subsidies, and the like. The list goes on and on, and frankly, arguing over cutting funding for any programs the size of NPR – given how small NPR is and how large the current deficit is – seems like a waste of time.

I’ve recently been reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt that pays special attention to his zealous protection of forests, birds, and National Parks. It’s profoundly unsettling to realize that without the executive orders that he (and other presidents) issued, there would be huge commercial mines in the Grand Canyon, and the Mariposa Grove (not to mention the floor of Yosemite Valley) would have been clearcut by the timber industry. When TR declared the Grand Canyon a National Park, there were howls of protest from westerners who resented the Federal intrusion (they saw it as a land grab), charges of socialism, and complaints that the president was abusing his authority. To anyone paying attention to politics now, these critiques probably sound eerily familiar.

At the time, of course, this was a predictable reaction, but now – a century later, after the Grand Canyon and Yosemite have become two of our most treasured National Parks – it’s somewhat more difficult to see how this was ever seriously debated. I think that you’d be hard pressed to find too many Americans that would like to see the Grand Canyon opened up to commercial mining. This should probably give us pause.

A century from now, the politicians of our current day may be admired if they’re able to reign in Federal spending and balance the budget, but it’s obvious that they’re not going to get to that point by going after NPR. If the same politicians that are going after NPR were willing to make the cuts, across the board, to balance the budget, I’m not sure I could complain. NPR, by and large, would still be very likely to thrive – unlike the National Endowment for the Arts, NASA, the National Park Service, and (likely) the U.S. Postal Service.

Regardless, either way this develops, it sounds like I need to go ahead and send in my pledge.

One thought on “NPR and Federal Funding

  1. Maureen

    Bravo, Conservative Politicians don’t get equal coverage on NPR because they bully and intimidate the masses under the guise of religion and use Fox News and other conservative talk show hosts to populate their message of hate and fear. So, while the conservatives rally the support of the masses, who get their information from conservative talk show hosts and FOX news, conservative leaders are elected and citizens end up dealing with situations that have occurred recently in Wisconsin and Ohio that have impacted the rights of individuals to collective bargaining. Saying good-bye to unions is not going to resolve the current debt to these states or to this country; however eliminating an individuals right to colective bargaining is going to be the beginning of the end of the middle class. The loss of federal funding will impact the quality of the quantity of what NPR offers, but it will not eliminate NPR. My hope is that because of the controversy over the federal funding that more of the masses will tune in, listen and in the process may start to think for themselves.

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