Public Broadcasting Caught in the Middle of Partisan Politics
by eric soohoo
On March 17th, the House of Representatives voted 228-192 to defund National Public Radio, in addition to making it unlawful for local public radio stations to purchase content from NPR with federal funds. Split along party lines, the GOP majority voted to cut what it considers to be an unnecessary government expenditure, trimming an estimated $90 million from the $1.3 trillion federal deficit. To put that in perspective, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington D.C., the United States’ current commitment in Afghanistan is costing taxpayers approximately $82 million daily. The cost of the cruise missiles Obama launched at Libya in one day could fund NPR for more than a year.
This may seem like an insignificant amount considering the size of the organization, as only 2 percent of NPR’s funding comes directly from the government. Due to the way the national distribution system operates, however, another 40 percent of revenue would be cut because local public radio affiliates would no longer be able to contribute to NPR. In addition to producing their own local news and shows, stations pay to broadcast NPR’s nationally-produced studio programs like “All Things Considered,” as well as national and international news coverage. If this bill passes the senate, local affiliates would subsequently be barred from using any federal funds to pay for this content.
How much will this affect you? For our privileged Bay Area readers, probably not much. The brunt of the impact will be on the little guys, namely the majority of rural radio stations that rely on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the lion’s share of their operating costs. Stations are already barred from using federal funds to pay employees (to prevent stations from qualifying for more money as a larger station), and this latest statute would be felt the most by the smallest stations with no additional staff. Unlike smaller rural stations, the majority of metropolitan area stations are able to pull in funds from listener pledges and usually have more resources to create their own programming. Without the ability to license content and lacking the manpower to create their own, it is likely that many small public radio stations will fold.
Using California as an example, the San Francisco-based NPR and Public Broadcasting Service affiliate KQED pulls in 7.8 percent of its revenue from the government, while 60 percent comes from pledges and contributions from viewers like you. KALW in the Bay Area similarly receives 9 percent of its budget from federal taxes. In contrast, PBS stations KIXE-TV in Redding and KEET-TV in Eureka get 45 percent and 46 percent of their budgets from the feds, respectively. Speaking in extremes, the amount of federal funding a local public radio station receives as total revenue can be closely correlated to how likely the district was to have voted for John McCain in the 2008 election. The GOP has long characterized NPR as a radically biased liberal mouthpiece, and pragmatically speaking the areas most affected by the cuts are the ones least likely to have the same political leanings.
Last October, longtime conservative commentator Juan Williams was sacked by NPR for comments that “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
His firing was decried as a violation of his first amendment rights, with fellow conservatives Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin among the most vocal.
Huckabee came out swinging against censorship, declaring, “It is time for the taxpayers to start making cuts to federal spending, and I encourage the new Congress to start with NPR.”
This case was cut and dry, but not the way it was spun. Williams’s actual comments represented his opinions as an honest and tolerant guy…with some caveats. His words: “[But] when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
In a position where objectivity was expected, he simply said something very inflammatory and he had to deal with the consequences. His reward? Fox News quickly picked him up with a multi-year, multimillion dollar contract and the freedom to say whatever he wants.
The most important question of course: what implications does this have for ethnic media outlets like your very own hardboiled? The short answer: maybe nothing. NPR reports that in the face of traditional print and news media, many ethnic media organizations are growing, such as Univision’s KMEX TV in LA, which is now the 18-49 age group Nielsen rating leader in the entire U.S. New American Media, the first ethnic news umbrella organization comprising over 2000 different news organizations, receives zero federal funding, instead drawing on private foundations, endowments, and individual donors.
The ridiculously partisan legislature is currently embroiled in pushing differing plans to reduce the national deficit, a massive 80 percent of which is comprised of healthcare, social security, and the untouchable defense budget. It is clear that the agenda behind defunding NPR comes from more sinister goals than solely addressing the federal bottom line. Though unlikely to pass the Democratic senate or president’s veto, the only possible fruit of this legislation is a widening gap in the growing division of our nation and the silencing of a source of information and discourse that at least some of us do appreciate.