npr and federal funding

By now it’s common knowledge that Ron Schiller, NPR’s already-lame-duck fundraising executive, was punk’d by serial liar James O’Keefe. The scuffle over Schiller’s inconvenient truth-telling about the Tea Party notwithstanding, Schiller’s off-the-cuff comment that NPR would be “better off” without federal funding is interesting. Although this puts me in the “wrong” camp, I’m inclined to agree. Federal funding muddies the waters, since the federal government is one of the key institutions being covered by NPR. Furthermore, it forces NPR into contortions as waves of new legislators see an opportunity to score points. I agree the transition would be very difficult, and perhaps a compromise is to “zero out” NPR after a several-year transition process. But ultimately I think NPR would be better off without (direct) federal funding. Of course as a deficit-reduction measure it’s idiotic since the amount of money we’re talking about is roundoff error, but that’s not a reason to deprive the loony new right of a talking point.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “npr and federal funding”

  1. I always found the “roundoff error” interesting when federal budgets come up.

    Everyone has a pet funding line that is mere “pocket change” in the sinkhole that is our federal budget. But if you went across the board and indiscriminantly lopped off each of these luxury programs, we would start to make a dent in deficit reduction. If we’re looking for pennies in the couch cushions that scrape up some $’s of savings, NPR seems like a perfectly reasonable choice, no?

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    1. honestly, the CPB really is rounding error and to a lesser extent this is true of all the non-defense discretionary spending put together. the vast majority of the budget/deficit is really attributable to three things: entitlements, defense, and tax expenditures (most famously the Bush tax cuts, but also things like the mortgage interest deduction). if you’re limiting the discussion to the size of non-defense discretionary spending then you’re not really talking about the budget but something else (to put it charitably, something else is originalism, to put it uncharitably, that something else is the culture war in fiscal disguise).

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  2. It might be nice for NPR to not have to be accountable to the federal government, but it would make NPR more dependent on corporations for its funding. Which would probably just mean more commercials. There are an awful lot of full-on commercials on PBS these days, so it’s not like CPB is unwilling to go the commercial route. I don’t see how making NPR more vulnerable to pressure from advertisers would be an improvement in the status quo.

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  3. Marketplace covered this yesterday. The problem is not so much the programs or larger stations that would be in trouble without federal funding, but smaller stations would be in trouble. Those of us living in major metropolitan areas would not be affected much, but it could have a substantial effect in areas that are not served by the major stations. That is not to say that the government interest should be in providing programming (though, as Gabriel notes, it will have almost no effect on the government budget at all), but that the consequences are likely to be very unequally distributed.

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    1. ps,
      more generally as you go from CPB to FCC it’s interesting to think how in general much American media policy is based on the idea of supporting local stations. (the FCC explicitly calls “localism” one of its top policy goals). hence the system (of which NPR is just a special case) of having local affiliates subscribing to network content rather than just having national superstations (as is the case on cable). my understanding is that when this pattern was established at the birth of broadcasting it was not an engineering issue but a political decision and one that i vaguely assume reflects the local nature of congressional districts. that’s just speculation though — although i’m a media guy, i haven’t studied the history of the broadcasting policy debates in the 20s and 30s closely enough to say. on the other hand the localism agenda of the NEA is of very recent memory (post Mapplethorpe/ Piss Christ) and it’s very clear that this was a “grant in every district” political strategy by the agency to influence Congress.

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  4. I agree with thinkb4post. It’s unfortunate (use a stronger adjective if you like) that CPB has to work the legislative process.
    But any alternative funding model means sucking up to donors, and this won’t make anything (scope/slant of coverage) better. (See Weigel, http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/weigel/archive/2011/03/11/defunding-npr-won-t-make-conservatives-like-it.aspx)

    On public tv, increased reliance on local (viewer) funding has meant fewer Sesame Streets (not enough for each letter to get a year), for example, and those awful baby boomer music specials to salve those who contribute.
    Not benign.

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