The debate over federal funding for National Public Radio has obscured the facts of its contributions around the country as other media sources lay off reporters, writes guest columnist Howard Wollner. When Congress takes up the budget battle, they should consider all the facts.
LET me be clear right at the outset: I think NPR is a liberal media resource. I say this in the best sense of the word. By liberal, I mean that NPR provides tolerant, broad-minded and enlightened perspectives on national and world events. Reporters take the time to develop a story, allow people to say more than a sound bite, and engage their audience to think more deeply about the implications of the issue being reported.
Of course, that’s not what the critics of public media mean when they say “liberal.” A big part of the ongoing debate about funding for public media centers on the perception by some that NPR leans liberal politically and makes no room for contrary thought.
I strongly disagree, and here’s why: NPR’s credibility has risen, according to the Pew Research Center, and its audience, divided nearly evenly across ideological thought, continues to grow. That suggests fairness, not bias.
My own experience would say that NPR attempts to bring all sides of an issue to a story. For example, during the protracted budget battle in Congress, NPR — while being targeted for cuts by a House bill — provided equal time for those advocating for deep cuts across many social programs and for those arguing for investments in infrastructure and education along with cuts in specific subsidy programs. It was left to the listener to decide which side of the debate to support.
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I call that reporting.
When I began listening to NPR 35 years ago, I was fresh out of college and had heard about a wonderful news show on public radio: “All Things Considered.” As the name implies, NPR, through the efforts of more than 400 reporters, editors and producers around the world, does just that. It considers all sides.
Why is this important? Because right now, more than 900 public radio stations across the country provide free, over-the-air service that reaches the vast majority of Americans. Many stations rely on federal grants, on average 10 percent of their budgets, to seed their fundraising. These stations provide local, national and international news to communities at a time when newspapers are shutting down and commercial media are shedding reporters and reducing the number of foreign bureaus.
Consider how important that is when disasters, like the recent Southern tornadoes, strike our communities.
It’s critical that people understand the facts about public funding of NPR, because a number of misperceptions have made their way into the debate. NPR has received no direct operating support from the federal government since 1983, and only about 2 percent of its annual $160 million budget comes from competitive federal grants. The rest comes from dues and programming fees received from member stations, corporate sponsorship, and grants and gifts from foundations and individuals.
More cuts to federal spending are inevitable as Congress returns to work on the 2012 budget. Sharing the pain may be necessary, but let’s not single out public media as the scapegoat for a much larger budgetary problem facing this country.
The need for public media is now greater than ever. A civil society needs trustworthy and, yes, “liberal” reporting to insure that a variety of perspectives are being heard and stories of importance to all of us, regardless of our politics, are being reported.
So when you think about NPR and about public media in general, don’t jump to conclusions without taking the time to understand the facts. After all, isn’t that what makes for a strong and healthy society?
Howard Wollner is a retired senior vice president of Starbucks Coffee Company. He serves as a trustee on the NPR Foundation Board and on other nonprofit boards.