Call it the NPR Walk-Back.
A politician or commentator defending National Public Radio against its latest transgression — be it the firing and slandering of veteran journalist Juan Williams or the denigration of nearly everyone who doesn’t live on the East or West Coast — will say that Congress should just drop its concern with the network because it only gets a teeny tiny portion of its budget from the federal government.
One of the most revealing moments in the video made by James O’Keefe’s fake charity was when now-former NPR Foundation President Ron Schiller said, “It is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without Federal funding.”
But when proclamations like this lead to the inevitable question of why, at a time when deficits are a paramount public concern, should we continue to fund a network that could, according to its executives and supporters, stand on its own, the walk-back begins.
First they say that America must fund public broadcasting because it symbolizes a commitment to what they view as public education. In defending the President’s proposed $31 million increase (!!) in annual funding — from $420 million to $451 million — for NPR’s funder the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, new White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained that both NPR and the CPB “are worthwhile and important priorities” to the White House.
Then the claim is made that eliminating funding for public broadcasting won’t make a dent in the deficit. This argument, however, was soundly rejected by none other than the president’s own deficit reduction commission led by moderate Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles.
Noting that “the current CPB funding level is the highest it has ever been,” the commission Co-Chairs’ Proposal estimates that eliminating funding to public broadcasting — from the CPB and other agencies — would save $500 million a year. That’s $5 billion over ten years. An argument that eliminating funding for public broadcasting doesn’t matter because spending is small compared to that on Social Security is really the same argument used against eliminating any earmark or discretionary spending for this reason. The answer is that the government needs to cut every slab of pork it can to make the whole hog thinner.
Then there is the “insignia” argument. This is that funding from the federal government opens the door to private funding. This is to some extent true, but it is all the more reason for defunding NPR and public broadcasting. On Monday, two days before the NPR board accepted her resignation as CEO, Vivian Schiller made statements in a speech to the National Press Club that were almost as revealing as what O’Keefe caught Ron Schiller (no relation) saying to the fake charity.
“Modest as it is — government funding is critical because it allows taxpayers to leverage a small investment into a very large one,” Vivian Schiller said. “It is seed money. Station managers tell me that 10 percent plays a critical role in generating the other 90 percent that makes their broadcasts possible.”
Amazingly, Schiller used almost the exact language of conservative writer Seth Lipsky to describe the effect of the government’s funding of NPR and the TV network PBS (Public Broadcasting System). “Whatever the scale, seed capital from a credible investor is an enormous help to any effort,” Lipsky wrote in the Wall Street Journal in October.
Yet what Lipsky pointed out and Schiller overlooked is that when the government uses “seed capital” to pick winners, it inevitably picks losers. Competitors in “high-culture” productions, both for-profit and non-profit, are crowded out by their subsidized competitor. Lipsky, who spent more than two decades starting journalism ventures, wrote, “More than once I have been interrupted, while singing the song of quality journalism to a potential investor, to be asked, ‘Isn’t this already being done by public broadcasting?'”
French free-market economist Frederic Bastiat pointed out in the 19th century that government actions always leave some production “unseen” that could potentially improve a country’s standard of living. Who knows how many media innovations are “unseen” because funding for public broadcasting has tilted the playing field for independent media?
NPR’s recent actions, outrageous as they are, must never become the main argument conservative rely on to eliminate public broadcasting’s funding. Rather the outrages should exemplify a principled argument on the role of the state that has appeal for the Tea Party movement as well as independent voters. As Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leader in the battle against many types of wasteful spending, put it recently, “Big Bird doesn’t need the taxpayers to help him compete against the Nickelodeon cable channel’s Dora the Explorer.”