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What's Behind the GOP's War Against NPR?

The '90s culture wars are back, with Republicans once again quibbling over a few million dollars in federal grants for public radio.
 
 
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According to one school of thought, the fashion cycle -- society’s evolving sense of what’s hip and trendy -- lasts roughly two decades, explaining why shoulder pads and floral dresses have come back with a vengeance in recent months. And it seems our nation’s politicians have taken a page from the fashion playbook to stage their own unpleasant ’90s revival: the return of the culture war against public broadcasting.

Then, it was Newt Gingrich and the 1994 class of conservative Congress members calling to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the federal funding mechanism for NPR and PBS) amid concerns over liberal biases in public broadcasting.

Today, it’s Newt Gingrich and the 2010 class of conservative Congress members calling to de-fund NPR amid concerns over liberal biases in public broadcasting.

What’s old is new again.

The latest battle against public broadcasting gained momentum from what should have been a straightforward affair. In late October, NPR and Fox News analyst Juan Williams, who has a history of sharing offensive and vaguely racist views on air, finally went too far, saying in an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor that people in “Muslim garb” make him “nervous” and “worried.” Some people have argued that NPR had been looking for a reason to fire Williams for some time, and the O’Reilly incident was merely an excuse to do so. Regardless, NPR executives showed Williams the door, noting that his remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” Within 48 hours, Williams had accepted a new $2 million contract from Fox News.

And almost immediately Republicans had (re-)broadcast their rallying cry: “ End public funding for NPR!

Was NPR indelicate in its handling of the Williams affair? Possibly. But that’s not why GOP members latched onto the story. Rather, they saw the incident as a perfectly timed opportunity to further their far-right agenda.

You see, just days before the Williams firing, NPR had accepted a $1.8 million grant from the Open Society Foundations, the charitable organization launched by billionaire financier George Soros. In an interview with Politico, Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona articulated the GOP’s well-documented feelings about Soros: “Open Society Foundations is essentially another name for George Soros, who is a committed leftist, one-world-government ideologue,” Franks said, citing NPR’s acceptance of the grant as “evidence of an underlying, hardcore left-wing bias that begs my ability to articulate.”

Between the Williams firing, the grant from a left-leaning foundation (though a relatively small one in the grand scheme of NPR’s $162 million budget), significant midterm wins by Republicans and a nationwide focus on spending cuts, the climate was perfect this fall for an orchestrated attack on NPR. An initial attempt by Republicans to force a vote on the issue failed in mid-November, but you can be sure the fight isn’t over. Republicans, now in power in the House, continue to beat the anti-NPR drum, coming at the issue from two angles:

1. The “NPR doesn’t need government money” argument: Budget hawks like House Minority Whip Eric Cantor have pointed to the Open Society grant and long-time NPR donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations as evidence that NPR is able to raise more than enough money without the help of the government.

And there’s some truth to that argument. Indeed, the vast majority of NPR funding comes from non-government sources. Only about 2 percent of its funds come directly from the federal government, via grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. What NPR relies on much more heavily are corporate and foundation dollars, contributions from individual listeners and dues from member stations, which themselves receive only about 15 percent of their funding from federal, state and local governments.

But couldn’t that same data be used to argue that the government needn’t bother de-funding NPR? Or, dare I say it, that the U.S. doesn’t give NPR enough funding? Compared to other countries in the developed world, the U.S. government contributes such an infinitesimally small amount of money to public journalistic endeavors -- just $1.43 per capita --  that it’s actually quite comical that the rallying cry has been to “de-fund” NPR; we barely fund NPR as it is.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the nation’s public radio stations wouldn’t survive without those government dollars. (And, in fact, that may be true, especially with the still-dismal economy.) The question then is: Do we want to live in a country without taxpayer-funded broadcasting? Our public radio and television networks may not be perfect -- they may not truly be “the media of the people” -- but they are at least a reasonable alternative to corporate-owned networks, which are responsible for the vast majority of news and other programming consumed by Americans.

One of the basic tenets of democracy is that it should foster an “informed, involved citizenry”; how will the U.S. do that if virtually all of its media outlets are owned by Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner?

2. The “taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund NPR because it’s part of a vast left-wing conspiracy” argument: This is where Newt Gingrich and his culture warrior friends come in. "I think the U.S. Congress should investigate NPR and consider cutting off their money," Gingrich told Fox News in the wake of the Williams firing, calling NPR’s actions "an act of total censorship."

Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, a strong supporter of Republican causes, took the argument one step further, calling NPR “the left wing of Nazism.” “These guys don't want any other point of view. They don't even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda,” he said in an interview with the Daily Beast. “They are basically Air America with government funding to keep them alive.”

Is there any basis to the liberal-bias claims about NPR? In a word, no.

On the one hand, NPR’s audience does skew liberal; according to a Pew Research Center poll, 40 percent of listeners describe themselves as Democrats, while 14 percent identify as Republicans. And some programs, such as On the Media, do have an overtly left-leaning focus.

But overall, NPR is not a “liberal” network. A 2004 analysis by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) found that among partisan sources on NPR programs, Republican voices actually outnumbered Democrats 3-to-2 -- a fact that held true during both Republican- and Democrat-controlled White Houses. (If Ailes, Huckabee and Palin want to find media bias, they should really be looking at the network that signs all of their paychecks: Fox News.)

At a time when the GOP just benefited from $190 million in campaign cash from outside organizations to take control of the House of Representatives, it’s insane that Republicans are quibbling over a few million dollars in federal grants for public radio, especially when it’s unlikely they’ll succeed in their de-funding efforts.

But as journalist and media critic Dan Kennedy points out, the war isn’t even really about NPR. “With the Republicans in control of just one branch, I suspect this is one crusade that's going nowhere. But it doesn't matter,” Kennedy writes in the Guardian. “[I]t's a political statement, not a genuine policy position; and it's a convenient cudgel with which to beat Democrats and liberals over the head.”

 
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