National Public Radio’s President and CEO Vivian Schiller simply gushed over President Obama’s proposed budget that preserved the funding for public broadcasting that House Republicans would just as soon cut. In expressing her gratitude to the White House, Ms. Schiller helped Republicans make their case.
Last week, House Republicans formally proposed zeroing out the $531 million federal subsidy for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), much of which is used to fund NPR stations and programming. Mr. Obama countered in his budget proposal with proposed increases in CPB funding out to 2014. NPR rushed out a statement praising the “vote of confidence” from the Obama administration, claiming that “public broadcasting is providing an essential service by informing and educating 170 million Americans every month,” a mission they claim “is more relevant than ever.”
Ms. Schiller’s love letter to the very partisan, extremely leftist Obama administration only served to reinforce the argument against such funding. NPR has faced growing criticism for a shocking level of bias in its news operations. This issue was brought dramatically into focus in October when NPR summarily fired longtime commentator Juan Williams for making allegedly anti-Muslim comments while appearing on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” This maladroit move was followed in January by the forced resignation of NPR’s senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss, who had fired Mr. Williams. Now a “grateful” Ms. Schiller is calling into question her organization’s ability to engage in critical coverage of the Obama White House or to give a fair shake to Republican leaders who want to end public broadcasting’s federal free ride.
Ms. Schiller has inadvertently drawn attention to the central point of the controversy. Public broadcasting cannot simultaneously be a creature of the state and serve the necessary Fourth Estate function as a government watchdog. So long as NPR draws from public coffers, its objectivity will be compromised. The cleanest and most compelling solution to this problem is to cut the subsidy completely. If federal largesse only makes up a fraction of NPR funding, as its defenders habitually maintain, it can easily be made up by other means such as private donations or by licensing PBS programming to cable and satellite stations. Perhaps a little market discipline would help NPR sharpen its operations and be more responsive to listeners. If public broadcasting’s mission is “more relevant than ever,” as Ms. Schiller asserts, it should be easy to find ways to keep it going. If not, it’s time to turn out the lights.
All the while, the Obama administration is seeking more direct means to regulate news media content. On Tuesday, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps made his case for the government taking an even more activist role in media than simply helping underwrite public broadcasting. Mr. Copps argued that “real journalism” is in decline, and that what the public is getting from news organizations is “too much opinion based on opinion and too little news based on fact.” His solution is to establish a “Public Value Test,” a set of criteria broadcasters would have to fulfill before being allowed to renew their broadcast licenses and utilize airwaves “that belong exclusively to the people.” Today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski defended the “net neutrality” rules that he rammed through the commission in December which greatly expanded the ability of the government to regulate how information on the Internet reaches the public.
Americans like to think government censorship and attacks on a free press are problems in authoritarian lands far, far away. But here at home, the First Amendment is under assault by the Obama administration. Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for its propaganda network.