On March 17, Congress voted to cut $50 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the financial lifeline of National Public Radio. Not coincidentally, this measure came just days after NPR Chief Fundraiser Ron Schiller was caught on tape slandering the Tea Party Movement. The recording also found him making claims that public radio was not dependent on federal money. As if Schiller’s choice of words was no damning enough, his station has been heavily scrutinized by our Republican-led Congress in recent months, most notably for its firing of commentator Juan Williams. His dismissal came after an appearance on the Fox News Channel, in which he detailed personal fears of cohabiting a commercial aircraft with passengers dressed in traditional Muslim garb. NPR executive salaries were also criticized when it was revealed a former president earned an annual salary of $1.2 million, while the president of the Public Broadcasting System makes $635,000 a year. “The object of this bill is to get NPR out of the taxpayer’s pocket,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. “It is time for us to be good stewards and save the money of the American taxpayer.”
Public radio and conservative politicos have a checkered, often combative history with one another, and since the latter has control of the House it would seem they have the upper hand. In response, Democrats have gone on the defensive since the recent ruling. “This legislation is no more than an ideological attack on public radio masquerading as a fiscal issue,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. NPR has long been characterized as a media outlet with strong liberal leanings, and the recent flack surrounding Schiller and Williams has only compounded this portrayal. This is unfortunate, because NPR features a multitude of informative, unconventional programs that have no inclination one way or the other.
Look at All Things Considered, a world news staple now in its 40th year. Hosts Robert Siegel, Michele Norris and Melissa Block spend two hours every day profiling fascinating stories and people that otherwise go unnoticed by other media sources, and to qualify these pieces as ‘strictly liberal’ is simply untrue. Or Car Talk, a call-in show hosted by professional mechanics and brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi. These two men have been humorously and helpfully assisting Americans with various automotive problems since 1977, and the manner in which they do so is essentially apolitical in nature. NPR also features arguably the finest musical programming in the country. All Songs Considered, Jazz Set, World Cafe and other like-minded shows have exposed listeners to the eclectic sounds of independent-label artists for years, and the appeal of their selections is certainly not limited to Democrats. Yes, there are series’ that cater to the left, such as Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and This American Life, but not enough to generalize the entire organization as inherently slanted.
Programming aside, there is a larger, more important issue here. Middle America will likely be unaffected by the budget cuts to public radio, as an overwhelming push to independently fund these stations will probably allow urban dwellers to continue listening. Rural locations, on the other hand, may be deprived of public radio and the plethora of news that these outlets supply. Anti-NPR advocates can be content with this for now; after all, these people might say, biased information deserves no audience. Fine, but this is merely a case of those with access to a variety of programs dictating what will be heard where options are far more limited. It may seem shocking to some, but there are many parts of the United States where cable stations and newsstands are a rare thing. Areas of Appalachia, the Southwest and Alaska, for example, are much more limited in their resources for news coverage than the District of Columbia, and residents are often forced to make to with little more than a crank radio. Are these people better off without news, simply because a few of us have decided the information provided by public radio favors liberal ideology?
The scope of this informational deficit can be felt elsewhere in the world. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the largest news provider in the world, has been forced to shut down several of its worldwide affiliations following 16% budget cuts by the English government. Listeners in Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Portugese-speaking Africa no longer have any BBC programming, as a result of complete regional closure. Furthermore, much of Latin America has lost its Spanish-language BBC broadcasts, as the network pushes to transfer content to a web-based format. This may not seem like a huge issue in our age of modern technology, but please keep in mind that most of Latin America qualifies as the Third World, and internet access is typically the exception, rather than the rule.
The corporation’s biggest loss, however, was witnessed last Friday as BBC Caribbean Voice gave its final broadcast. The program began in 1939, and provided West Indian troops serving in World War II with the opportunity to read letters to their families. In the years that followed, Caribbean Voice gave publicity to the individuals and events that signified the oft-forgotten West Atlantic. Prominent figures, such as cricketer Ken Ablack, writers VS Naipaul and George Lamming and renowned journalist Trevor McDonald were among those who provided West Indian listeners with a selection of programs that was unprecedented to this region. With the announcement of Caribbean Voice‘s conclusion, David Jessop, director of the London-based Caribbean Council, described the situation best. “The sole vehicle offering the region the chance to hear on a daily basis about events from a broader perspective and sometimes hold politicians to account, will be no more,” he stated last week, “and leading figures in public life will find it virtually impossible to present their views to a region-wide radio audience.”
Yes, public radio should live up to its name and, in doing so, not promote any material that is fundamentally biased; for this reason, a lot of blame for this development falls on the shoulders of NPR execs. However, instead of playing the blame game, why not institute some measure of quality control for public radio programs. If the government were to implement an advisory board, to which individuals from both sides of the spectrum are appointed to ensure each broadcast is free of any left/right-leaning sentiments, then we could justifiably continue to fund such stations on the public dime. Easier said than done, sure, but certainly feasible, given a little leniency from both sides. However, in the case of many stories, let’s not confuse a liberal slant with objective reports on conservative individuals. It is not unreasonable to assume that many politicians are critical of public radio merely because its journalists attribute some potentially unsavory – yet factual – quotes and actions to them.
The truth is, liberals and conservatives can bicker all they want about the merits and detriments of public radio programming. Both sides have valid arguments, but they are also alike in their failure to recognize that the content of these stations is not the most significant factor here. As the BBC recently saw, government budget cuts have snatched news broadcasts away from tens of millions of listeners all across the globe. If Congress sincerely believes certain contingents of the United States are better off without NPR and similar stations, then let them go about it in with the means afforded to them by our government. However, they should be very specific as to who should have access to public radio, who should not and why. If we are good stewards, as Rep. Blackburn suggests, then it is only fair to be direct with the people who will have public radio stripped from them.