Ax Government Funding for NPR

NPR is no Xinhua, but Elon Musk is correct that it doesn't need government subsidies.


Yesterday, NPR announced that it was leaving Twitter after CEO Elon Musk slapped a "state-affiliated media" label on its account—the same label used for outlets like the Chinese propaganda publication Xinhua, which has been described by watchdogs and scholars as the "eyes and tongue" of the Chinese Communist Party and "the world's biggest propaganda agency."

"NPR's organizational accounts will no longer be active on Twitter because the platform is taking actions that undermine our credibility by falsely implying that we are not editorially independent," reads the statement from executives. "We are not putting our journalism on platforms that have demonstrated an interest in undermining our credibility and the public's understanding of our editorial independence." The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) followed suit, to which Musk replied: "Publicly funded PBS joins publicly funded NPR in leaving Twitter in a huff after being labeled 'Publicly Funded.'"

Musk's decision to slap such a label on NPR's account sure looks like a textbook culture war provocation, eyeing NPR as a target ripe for roasting by his followers. (He tweeted "Defund NPR," sharing a screenshot of an email an NPR reporter had sent him asking for comment.) But there's more than a grain of truth to what he's saying, and if NPR stopped taking government funds, it could clear its own name.

So how state-funded is NPR, really? At its inception, it was entirely paid for by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which was created by the Public Broadcasting Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. Democrats at the time were enamored with the idea of improving the breadth and quality of educational programming. "While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit," said Johnson. "That is the purpose of this act."

So in 1970, the CPB formed NPR, which started with 88 station affiliates; All Things Considered launched a year later. For that first decade and change, NPR happily chomped away at that government teat, ultimately landing itself in major financial trouble in the early '80s, accused of reckless spending by the Government Accountability Office and forced by the CPB to restructure. Instead of the government giving money directly to NPR, which could then be given out to member stations, the CPB decided to give funds to member stations—which now number more than 1,000—to buy NPR content, which remains the structure today (thus making it tough to suss out how much federal funding NPR actually gets).

As of 2017, NPR got 38 percent of its funding from individual donors; 19 percent from corporate sponsors; 10 percent from foundations; 10 percent from university licensing; and about 4 percent from the government. The CPB still funds NPR via the member station funds doled out, to the tune of roughly 10 percent nowadays, but it's tough to say exactly how much tainted taxed-away money is flowing into NPR's now-resplendent coffers. (Do public university funds count, for example?)

PBS, for its part, gets roughly 15 percent of its funding from the CPB, with a hefty chunk coming from individual and corporate donors.

Tea Partiers and Trumpists have all cyclically threatened to ax public radio funding, and they ought to follow through—in part because NPR can surely stand on its own two legs now.

NPR wants to have it both ways: Its supporters say less than 1 percent of its funding comes from the government but its website claims "federal funding is essential to public radio's service to the American public." It wants to continue holding out its hands for government funding, but it also wants to brag about complete and total editorial independence—two ideas held in tension—while developing quite the reputation for lefty bias (backed up by the Knight Foundation and Pew Research Center audience polling), which leaves conservative and libertarian taxpayers' stomachs churning.

But Tea Partiers of yore, Trumpy types today, and Musk fanboys miss that it's not that NPR is totally wrong on everything, or the enemy of the people, or a Pravda-style propaganda arm of the U.S. government. NPR has reported on the Social Security Ponzi scheme; how petty fines lead to driver's license suspensions; not to mention airing the dulcet tones of Reason's own Nick Gillespie making the case for…defunding public radio. ("The idea that we have an inalienable right to Car Talk or Sesame Street to be piped in over tax-supported airwaves strikes me as a stretch," said Gillespie in 2010.) NPR does good work at times and has shifted its funding model over the years to rely much more on individual, corporate, and foundation contributions. Its member stations ought to do the same, and all of them can succeed or fail of their own merit, the way pretty much all other publications and broadcasters do in this country.

What started as, essentially, a Great Society initiative designed to provide a diversity of programming options for the poor and downtrodden has outlasted its usefulness in the era of Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and those little devices we keep in our pockets at all times that can stream any podcast on demand. The media landscape is totally different from how it was in 1967, and government allocation of funding ought to reflect that.

Why can't NPR and PBS privatize and charge customers a small monthly fee to view their content, the way many other platforms do? You still saw that Succession episode and you still read that New York Times or Bloomberg article even though you had to pay for the content (or prioritize what to consume due to cost).

It's time for the federal government to kick NPR and PBS out of the nest; your taxpayer dollars should never have been subsidizing Big Bird, Tiny Desk concerts, or those insufferable tote bags in the first place, and they certainly shouldn't now in the era of audiovisual abundance.