Monday, December 20, 2010

A Modest Proposal For (De-)Funding NPR

Shortly after the November midterm election, resurgent House Republicans proposed cutting funding to National Public Radio -- which incoming Speaker John Boehner called "a left-wing radio network" -- by forbidding local stations from using government funding to buy NPR programs.

It was a ham-fisted approach inspired by NPR's firing of commentator Juan Williams and it went down on Nov. by a vote of 239-171 with lame duck Democrats helping provide the big margin of defeat. No doubt, NPR will be a target again once the new Congress is sworn in. So how can NPR -- which in actuality gets the much of its funding through various forms of philanthropy and sponsorship -- make its case for government support?

Like Boehner, a lot of Republicans think NPR is biased against them, despite evidence to the contrary. But maybe the real problem is one of constituency. Maybe Republicans don't feel like they have much at stake in sustaining NPR.

If that's the case, maybe they're right.

NPR doesn't get funding directly from the federal government. Member stations receive grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the independent nonprofit that distributes federal money to public broadcasters, and that was the pressure point of the Republican proposal. Those stations pay fees to NPR for programming and technical services, which together account for about half of NPR's annual revenues.

Each grant is considered on its own merits. But when all those grants are added up by state, a clear pattern emerges: Some states get a lot less than others on a per-capita basis. And if you look at a list of the have-nots of the CPB grant system -- the 20 states that got less than $4 million apiece in 2009 -- the list includes 12 of the 22 states that John McCain won in the 2008 presidential election. In other words, the issue might be that Republican-leaning states don't have as much at stake. So if Republican members of Congress go after NPR, they are unlikely to suffer political consequences.

So here's a modest proposal for the incoming Republican House majority: With $478.8 million in grants in 2009, CPB represents less than a rounding error in the nation's $1 trillion-plus deficit, and any proposal to de-fund CPB is certain to be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. So why try to kill it? Instead, why not reallocate CPB money in a way that benefits Republicans and their districts?

It wouldn't be hard at all. House Republicans could devise a new formula that allocates CPB money to states according to the number of people who voted for McCain in 2008, a big Democratic year. Such a formula would go a long way to help places that arguably could use additional boost for local media. Alabama, for example, would get more than twice as with big funding increases include Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina. And if they don't like the programming that NPR is sending them, they have the leverage of their increased grant money to demand change.

I'm not a big fan of government funding of journalism. But the fact of the matter is that government subsidies are everywhere -- from CPB grants to favorable mailing rates and tax deductions for individuals' grants to 501(c)3 organizations such as the Franklin Center. If Republicans really want to cut government funding of journalism, they have a lot more work to do than "executing" NPR, as GOP elder statesman Pat Buchanan suggests. Until then, they shouldn't kid themselves about what they would accomplish by blocking NPR's public revenue stream.


Public Media "Have-Nots": The 20 states with the lowest CPB grant totals in 2009

Rhode Island $774,711
Wyoming $982,129 *
Maine $1,582,392
Montana $1,623,470 *
South Dakota $1,636,221 *
Vermont $1,693,422
West Virginia $2,192,000 *
Idaho $2,192,525 *
Mississippi $2,225,238 *
New Hampshire $2,227,215
Hawaii $2,522,417
Connecticut $2,834,282
Alabama $2,887,913 *
Arkansas $2,952,858 *
Oklahoma $3,146,341 *
Nevada $3,184,697
Kansas $3,356,566 *
North Dakota $3,386,257 *
South Carolina $3,513,303 *

* denotes state won by McCain in 2008

Source: Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Andy Alexander's Wake-Up Call

Nonprofit news organizations got yet another wake-up call Sunday morning from Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander.

In his regular column today about an environmental story produced by the Center for Public Integrity, he took Post editors to task for publishing the story without telling readers what CPI is and why the Post is publishing its work.

More than a dozen readers simply hadn't heard of CPI, Alexander wrote. But one reader he cited by name -- Douglas H. Green of Washington, D.C. -- took issue with CPI. Green said CPI "often gives a biased, anti-business view on environmental topics," according to Alexander.

What's troubling here is that although CPI has a 20-year track record of excellence, and although Alexander's own investigation found that the story had been thoroughly vetted by Post editors, the Post's failure to explain itself and CPI to readers opens it to accusations of bias from readers who have their own interests to protect.

As we learn from Alexander's column, Green is a lawyer who represents electric utilities on environmental issues. As it so happens, the story, entitled "Obama administration gives billions in stimulus money without environmental safeguards," names electric utilities that got stimulus money for job-creating projects while also being granted "exemptions from a basic form of environmental oversight."

Are these companies among Green's clients? Quite possibly. It might be that Green has some skin in the game and in fact is the party that harbors a biased view of the issue. We don't know because that information isn't disclosed, either.

But we do know that accusations of bias -- whether because of funder pressures or reporters' own political views -- remains one of the great, nagging criticisms of nonprofit news organizations. To protect themselves, and indeed, to remain viable news providers for the long haul, they and their publishing partners among legacy media need to do a better job of explaining how the model works and why it benefits readers.