National Public Radio host Mary Louise Kelly recently violated one of the most important rules of journalism: Don’t make yourself the story. Ms. Kelly was granted an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and used it to ask some questions about this whole Ukraine business. That was well within her rights. So too was Mr. Pompeo’s response: He didn’t like the questions and made her quite aware of it.
Then Ms. Kelly homed in on what she evidently deemed the most important thing to come out of an interview with America’s leading diplomat and one of the president’s closest confidants: Her. She tweeted about Mr. Pompeo’s angry response; she appeared on television talking about it. On Wednesday, days after the story broke, she was still flogging it, this time in an op-ed in The New York Times.
The NPR-Pompeo imbroglio has done more than expose one radio journalist’s narcissism, however. It has brought to the fore, once again, a perennial question: Why does the United States, with its vibrant free press, have state-funded media? Shouldn’t the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the taxpayer-funded organ that subsidizes what some wags call “National Panhandler Radio,” as well as PBS television, finally be put out to pasture?
To this, NPR’s defenders offer a strident and incoherent defense. “Less than 2% of our funding comes from the government,” tweeted Lula Garcia-Navarro, an NPR host, in offering a defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Your occasional reminder that NPR is primarily supported through sponsorship and station dues/fees, not federal funding. Attacks suggesting anything else are false,” added NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.
All of which would seem to raise a question: If government funding is such a minuscule part of NPR’s budget — only 2 percent, as Ms. Garcia-Navarro put it — why do the news agency’s defenders squeal like stuck pigs every time someone proposes slashing it?
Probably because the 2 percent figure is so much fake news. Yes, it’s true that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting only directly funds 2 percent of NPR’s budget. But the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is still vital to both NPR and PBS. That’s because each year the corporation doles out approximately $300 million to local non-commercial stations — those same local television and radio stations whose dues sustain NPR and PBS.
When those funds are taken into account, federal tax dollars account for about 15 percent of public broadcasting’s budget, not 2 percent, according to estimates from Broadcasting & Cable, a trade publication.
Eliminate that stream of funding and NPR would have to move a lot more tote bags.