National Essential Radio

I suspect that if we were privy to behind-the-scenes security footage, we’d see images of James O’Keefe as a marionette with Karl Rove’s hand up the back of his shirt. O’Keefe, for those that have been living under a rock, is the genius behind such popular Youtube favorites as, “Planned Parenthood helps kids kill babies”, “The US Census counts immigrants as 5/3 of a person,” and “ACORN hates legal elections.” He’s a Michael Moore of a different stripe — a film auteur creating scenes of the political landscape in his own image.

Like any diligent, risk-taking activist, things haven’t always worked out perfectly for him. O’Keefe was arrested in January 2010 for trying to tamper with the phones of US Senator Mary Landrieu, and a stunt later last year went bad when he tried to lure CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau onto a boat filled with sex toys to “seduce” her and publicize it to embarrass her network.

Just like Moore, O’Keefe is manna from heaven to people that want to believe a particular thing. It’s no coincidence that numerous prosecutors’ offices have declined to press charges over anything he’s allegedly “exposed” — he films a dozen episodes of Punk’d for every film that hits the Internet, and even those are heavily edited. O’Keefe asks the rabid, thoughtless masses to believe that footage of someone obtained through an undercover, illegal videotaped sting is somehow representative of an entire organization. And he’ll keep banging at an organization until he finds someone he can edit into some semblance of that evidence. What a darling. Just like Michael Moore on the other side … he’s an asshole. And I’ve wasted enough ink on him, except to note that his latest stunt has damaged the cause of something else I care about.

All of this, of course, is about National Public Radio. About a week ago, this douchebag released another heavily-edited video, this one with two of his activists posing as Arabic “charity donors” offering $5 million to Ronald Schiller, who up until about that point was NPR’s chief fundraiser. Schiller is shown agreeing with potential donors when they criticized Republicans, in the interest of landing a major donation. By the time the editing was done, even those who favor NPR admit that Schiller came off as a caricature of everything conservatives are afraid NPR represents. Ron Schiller was already on his way out, but the incident also led to the resignation of Vivian Schiller (“no relation,” as the press is fond of noting). For the record, NPR turned down the money because they couldn’t validate the donor organization, but the whole thing came at a terrible time. This past week, the House voted to defund NPR and to prohibit any of its member stations from spending federal money on NPR programming.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is the parent company for NPR, and it derives its funding from a variety of sources. CPB actually gets very little money from the federal government; instead, member stations buy programming, as with local stations for other major television and radio networks. Programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, which are its flagship news programs, account for the majority of those sales. That’s why thet bill that passed the House defunding CPB was accompanied by a prohibition against stations spending federal money to support NPR. In face, NPR doesn’t get all that much of its budget from federal money, but as they say, it’s the thought that counts.

Originally, the rhetoric against NPR was based on fiscal responsibility – opponents asked, why should discretionary spending continue for this station while others receive no federal aid? All the rage here in Washington lately has been the idea that we have to tighten our belts and restrict discretionary spending. Considering that the entire annual budget of NPR (both direct federal funding and fees from member stations) represents less than one percent of one percent of the federal budget, this is a specious argument. And everyone knew it.

Finally, in about the last week, I’ve heard several representatives own up to the real reason for defunding NPR. To paraphrase numerous voices on the floor of the Congress, the argument essentially goes to the effect that citizens shouldn’t be obliged to fund things with which they don’t agree. Conservatives have this idea that NPR is a network of raging liberals, brainwashing us into believing such silly and concepts as evolution and global warming, and how on Earth should hardworking Americans’ tax dollars go to support such a thing?

Let’s first examine the idea of federal funding for “things you don’t agree with.” Is there anyone around who thinks that the recipients of farm subsidies are still the mom-and-pop operations romanticized by Green Acres? We produce so much corn that it’s coming out our ears. Its producers are getting subsidies to grow it, then subsidies for research into ridiculous ways to prove that there isn’t any way to turn it into a sensible source of fuel … then subsidies to turn it into fuel. To go to extremes, what if you don’t agree with American military policy? Should we get rid of the Department of Defense? Should we defund the Drug Enforcement Agency? There is some 8% of the population that self-reports having used illegal drugs in the last month, and those folks would probably appreciate both the tax break and the lack of interference in their habit.

Recognizing that those are as specious as the NPR haters’ arguments, how about a more realistic example: sports stadiums. Cities around the country spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars erecting monuments to sports, even though the majority of their citizens couldn’t tell you the difference between a home run and a field goal. Under the guise of developing local businesses (which is generally political speak for allowing a select few to cash in on rising property values), municipal governments issue bonds that put their taxpayers on the hook for supporting the habit of a few. Your tax dollars go to support a lot more baseball games than they do re-runs of The Diane Rehm Show.

On the flipside, more than half of Americans respond to surveys saying that they listen to NPR at least sometimes, and many listen every or almost every day. Proponents and opponents alike have thrown up a lot of fuzzy math regarding what it actually costs, but I’d bet that any cost-benefit analysis in existence would jot NPR down at the top of the list of public expenditures that are completely worth the money. For about $350 million a year (the total outlay for CPB and the federal money that comes from member stations), this is something that enough of us want that you should leave it alone. Give them a freaking raise. But no, instead of putting realistic tax brackets back in place on the richest 1% of Americans, we’re going after pennies on the dollar and pretending we’re doing something to address debilitating deficits.

Beyond the silly idea that the government shouldn’t fund something that not everyone agrees with, I’d take issue with the idea that NPR is a raging liberal entity. I read recently that NPR programs quote conservative sources in a 2:1 ration to liberal sources (the difference there is somewhat alleviated by consulting academics, who do tend to be more liberal). I’m not saying that NPR doesn’t have a liberal bent, but I’m absolutely saying that it’s not the leftist grinch that the Republicans are trying to make it out to be. Clearly, many of NPR’s shows – Animal House and Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! and Car Talk – are completely apolitical. Examine All Things Considered and Morning Edition with an open mind, though, and you’ll also see a relatively direct treatment of the news. I’ll wager that a lot of people claiming liberal bent have rarely even listened.

Look, this is coming from a guy who used to switch back and forth between WMAL (Washington’s local wingnut station) and Air America, just to get the two crazy takes on current issues. I figured that if they actually agreed on anything, that was FACT, and the rest gave me a starting point for my own reading to find out what was going on. And, speaking as someone that generally just wants to know what’s going on, I really believe NPR is a reasonable source for that purpose.

Which brings me to my final point. Let’s say you’re anti-nuclear energy, or anti-war, or pro-drugs. We’re not going to stop producing nuclear energy or funding national defense or interdicting drug shipments. The National Academy of Science conducts research that not everyone agrees with. The CDC tries to come up with new vaccines despite woefully misled parents who continue to believe they are related to autism. Most of the deficit is due to the military-industrial complex and entitlement spending, all of which are opposed by some but recognized by most as serving a purpose. There are some things that the national government does because they’re good for us. National Public Radio is one of those things.

I keep hearing people say, why fund NPR when we don’t fund the major networks? And here, they usually insert ABC, CBS and NBC. That would be a marginally better argument against PBS, but since Big Bird isn’t in their sights (under the current legislation), I’ll leave that one alone for now. The critical question is, do you ever try to watch any of those networks? Their programming is pure dreck. Anyone having suffered through an episode of Two and a Half Men will agree with me there.

You have two basic problems with for-profit television and radio. First, they’re in thrall to their sponsors. Ruppert Murdoch tells his Fox minions what opinions to push. Horizontal integration between television, radio and news programming means that there are fewer and fewer outlets with fresh takes on things, and both sides of the philosophical debates trot out marginally qualified people as experts and ram corporate viewpoints down the throats of their listeners. Television and radio personalities are held in check as to what they might want to say, by what their sponsors might think, or alternatively, they’re obliged to push party lines. NPR, while not immune, is less beholden to corporate sponsorship and has somewhat more freedom to be conscientious in their presentation of facts.

The second ball to which for-profit broadcasting is chained is profitable content, which all too frequently means asinine programming. We’re deluged with “reality” television and shock jocks. Local and cable outlets include such unbelievable revelations as ATMs that charge non-members user fees and the cute little dog that became a mascot for the big area high school. They frequently cater to the lowest common denominator in taste and educational levels. I recognize that what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander, but can I please have my one news outlet that I trust to be relatively objective and not treat me like a mouth-breather? NPR is an alternative to popular culture and smart doesn’t survive if it needs to turn a profit. I want news that deals with developments in Japan and North Africa and focuses on politics and finance in a largely non-partisan way. I’m not naive, but I refuse to go along with the prevailing notion that NPR is out to turn everyone into Trotskyites. By and large, it’s simply good reporting. And I can understand why the Republicans are afraid of any outfit dedicated to educating the electorate.

We should keep funding National Public Radio because it’s a valuable service that far more of us want than don’t. It isn’t a major expenditure of the government, it does its job honestly, and it’s an oasis of worthwhile programming in a desert of corporate sponsorship. So Congress – the next time someone asks why we have to keep funding it, take your collective cojones in one hand, point at them with the other, and say:

“For the same reasons you have to eat your spinach. Because it’s good for you. And because I said so.”

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