NPR controversy: Even if NPR loses its federal funding, conservatives will still attack it for bias.

NPR controversy: Even if NPR loses its federal funding, conservatives will still attack it for bias.

NPR controversy: Even if NPR loses its federal funding, conservatives will still attack it for bias.

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March 10 2011 3:38 PM

National Private Radio

Even if NPR loses its federal funding, conservatives will still attack it for bias.

Sen. Jim DeMint. Click image to expand.

"We can't afford it and they don't need it,"said Sen. Jim DeMint Wednesday, referring to the $422 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets from the federal government. "We're facing a $1.5 trillion deficit and spending hundreds of millions on public broadcasting makes no sense today when they are raising millions from private donors and Americans already have thousands of media choices."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post. 

This is the good argument for slashing the CPB's funding. The lousy argument is that cutting the funding would save NPR, at long last, from its wretched existence as a Republican punching bag. BREAKING, as they say in the news business: NPR is always going to be a Republican punching bag. The main claim is its liberal bias, not its funding source.

NPR is eternally apologizing for its liberal image, and it does so because it gets government funding. But would that change if the source of NPR's funding changed? No matter how NPR survives (and it's going to, even if DeMint takes power in a coup tomorrow), it will owe some donor something. Its donors will be subject to public pressure. There will be critics who will attempt—and succeed—to discredit what it reports because of who funds it.

How do I know this? I've worked for nonprofit media and for-profit media since 2004. From 2006 to 2008 I worked at Reason, operated by the non-profit Reason Foundation. From 2009 through early 2010 I worked at the now-defunct Washington Independent, operated by the nonprofit Center for Independent Media.

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They didn't take money from taxpayers. They just used the generous provisions of nonprofit status to get exemption from the corporate income tax, and they got donations that were brought up as shibboleths by anyone irritated by the content. CIM got a grant from George Soros's Open Society Institute, to fund immigration reporting—the organization and its member sites are constantly labeled "Soros-funded." The billionaire industrialist David Koch is on the board of trustees of Reason, so that was used by hardcore libertarians (through 2008 or so) and liberals (starting in 2010) to discredit everything it published.

I'm harping on the nonprofit side of this because that's the model NPR and the CPB are likely to stick with even if they lose federal funds. If the argument for cutting federal funds is that nonlisteners and people who don't support their reporting shouldn't have to buy in, there's a problem: Even if they no longer get federal subsidies, they still benefit from some federal tax exemptions. Some of their reporting will come with strings attached by donors who want to endow certain projects. That's true with a lot of funding to nonprofits that do journalism. It's attackable.

But all journalism is attackable for bias. For-profit journalism—where I've worked since 2010— is not immune, either. The O'Reilly Factor frequently criticizes NBC Universal (disclosure: I'm a contributor to MSNBC), pointing out GE's ownership stake in the network and casting aspersions on how this affects programming and coverage. On Tuesday, O'Reilly riffed about all the advantages Barack Obama had during the 2008 campaign, when GE owned NBC Universal outright. (Comcast bought 51 percent of NBC Universal in January.) "NBC News actively promoted his candidacy," O'Reilly said, "and so did the parent company General Electric."

Why should a taxpayer care about a private company owning a media company? The O'Reilly argument is that GE can benefit from government action, so any journalism it pays for should be scrutinized for bias. When GE's Jeffrey Immelt was named chairman of the president's council on competitiveness in January, O'Reilly called it "a straight flat out quid pro quo."

This is the kind of criticism NPR can look forward to if it loses federal funding and instead relies on private donors. Scrambling for donors could be a good thing. As Michael Barone pointed out, the National Trust for Historic Preservation faced a similar death threat in 1995 and negotiated for a three-year draw-down of federal funds. That gave the trust time to build a new fundraising operation among donors who knew the organization could die without them.

There will never be a time, however, when NPR will escape criticism for what it covers and who funds it. Talking about the NPR scandal on CNN last night, Andrew Breitbart mused about the beauty of journalism in Great Britain, where people choose their news sources based on biases. "I think we're ending this era of false objectivity in this country," he said. If so, then maybe NPR can finally catch a break.