Monday, December 6, 2010

NPR and Juan Williams, Part 3: Or, Should NPR be Defunded?

Previously, I wrote about NPR firing Juan Williams (here and here). Unsurprisingly, the controversy has come with calls for the withdrawal of government funds from NPR. When the issue of government funding was raised with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller after the Williams firing, she remarked that only 3% of NPRs budget comes from government grants, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). That is technically correct, but doesn't tell the whole story. Many of NPRs member stations also receive government support. So if government support were withdrawn from NPR and all the member stations, the impact on NPRs budget would be much larger than 3%--about 10% according to NPR.

Schiller is caught in a catch-22 on the funding issue. If the governments contribution to NPRs budget really were insignificant, as Schiller seems to want to claim, then why take any government money, especially if it will be accompanied by much public criticism, as has happened with the Williams incident? So, either the government's contribution is important or it is not, Schiller cannot have it both ways.

One of the arguments against NPR funding is its liberal bias. As you can imagine, conservatives are more likely to hold this view than liberals. I have been an avid listener of NPR programs for nearly two decades now, and to me NPRs liberal bias is as clear as the nose on my face. I'm often surprised, therefore, to hear others argue that NPR has no bias. Defenders point to the fact that NPR often has conservative voices on its programs and tries hard to explain different points of view when covering a news story. The problem with this argument is that it confuses a lack of bias with fairness. If one has no bias, it means they have no opinion either way on an issue. We all have biases. They are unavoidable. Fairness, however, is a more achievable goal. A news organization that is fair (and balanced?) will strive to provide differing viewpoints an opportunity to express themselves. NPR is better than most news organizations at being fair, but that does not make it unbiased. Clearly, from the news that NPR decides to report upon to its choice of language, NPR has a liberal bias. Additionally, none of its regular news analysts, or hosts of its afternoon programs, such as Fresh Air and The Diane Rehm Show, are conservative.

NPRs liberal bias, or its firing of Juan Williams, however, are not cause for cutting government funds. Since lacking a bias is an unachievable goal, it should not be the standard for receiving government funds. And, if fairness were the standard, NPR would get an A+, and thus should receive government funds.

The case against government funds, however, should not be about whether NPR is biased or unfair. Rather, it should be about the proper role of government in a free market economy. NPR, or any other media organization, should not receive government funds because the government should not show favoritism in the marketplace. A capitalist system needs a neutral arbiter to enforce the rules of capitalism. That neutral arbiter must be the government. No other entity can provide that role with the necessary authority. For the government to remain neutral, it must not favor some media organizations over others.

PBS's kids programming competes with that of other kids programing from Disney, Nickelodeon, ABC Family, and Cartoon Network. PBS's The Newshour competes with news programs from NBC, ABC, and CBS. And, NPR competes with other talk radio programs. When the government favors these programs by giving them money, it gives them an unfair advantage over their competitors. “But NPR and PBS are better than those other shows and programs,” one might argue. When you ask for tax support of the programs you prefer, however, you are asking those who don't share your preferences to provide financial support (through taxes) for your preferences. Also, it is not fair to the companies who compete with NPR and PBS, because they are not getting government grants. When you go to the grocery store, you might have a choice between buying diapers with Mickey Mouse (a Disney character) on them or diapers with Elmo (a character from PBS's Sesame Street) on them. PBS can promote its Elmo character with government support. Disney is forced to compete with PBS with no government support. The government distorts the marketplace, therefore, when it provides preferential treatment for certain media organizations over others. (Much of what the government does provides preferential treatment to certain groups, but I'll leave that issue for a another blog post).

Critics of NPR have reveled in the controversy surrounding the Williams firing. My own criticisms of NPR, however, are more from the view of a wounded lover than a critic. I want NPR to continue the great programming I've enjoyed over many years. My opposition to government funding is not based, therefore, on a dislike of NPR, but rather on a principled understanding of the proper role of government in the marketplace.


Jon said...

I couldn't have said it better. It comes down to how you fundamentally see the role of government. The left desires more benefits, the right (or some of the right) wants to see less. This idea is being played out in numerous ways, NPR is just getting most of the attention due to their visibility.

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