Republicans took a shot at defunding NPR in the 1990s after taking control of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm elections, but the effort soon fizzled. Even though the GOP had good arguments about the anachronistic quality of government-funded broadcasts in an era where cable TV delivered hundreds of choices to Americans, the obvious animus of Republicans to NPR and the lack of a compelling and acute issue doomed the idea, and NPR’s funding survived. Byron York reports that the House Republicans believe they can succeed this time in eliminating NPR’s funding thanks to public disgust with federal spending, as well as the aftermath of NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams:
There are two reasons House Republicans are more optimistic than before: concern over federal spending and the lingering fallout from NPR’s decision to fire commentator Juan Williams.
“We’re running annual deficits of over a trillion dollars,” says Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Colorado Republican who has written a new bill to defund NPR. “With 500 cable TV channels, Internet on people’s cell phones, satellite radio, we have so many sources of media that we don’t need a government-subsidized source of media.”
Lamborn introduced an NPR-defunding bill last year but couldn’t get much support. That changed in October when NPR fired Williams for confessing that he sometimes gets nervous when people in Muslim garb board airplanes. “Before the Juan Williams issue came up, it really wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar screens,” says Lamborn. “People said, ‘Oh, you can’t go against Big Bird.’ ”
The “Big Bird” argument — that defunding public broadcasting would kill beloved programming like “Sesame Street” — is the oldest plea in the book for defenders of government-funded media. But Lamborn’s narrowly focused bill is aimed specifically at NPR, and not at all of public broadcasting.
Still, cutting off federal money just to NPR is a complicated task. There isn’t any congressional appropriation that says “Funds for NPR.” Instead, federal money goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which received $420 million from the government in 2010. About $90 million of that went to public radio. The corporation gave part of that $90 million to NPR, and part of it to local public radio stations, which turned around and used the money to buy NPR programming. NPR has also gotten money from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Departments of Education and Commerce.
How much money does NPR get from the federal government? No one really knows, Lamborn explains. He asked the Congressional Research Office to give an analysis, and they couldn’t figure it out. Instead, Lamborn has to go to the Government Accountability Office and hope they can find the answer. NPR claims that less than 2% of their operating funds come from the federal government, but they define that as direct funding; the subsidies paid to local channels to buy NPR programming doesn’t get acknowledged as federal funding by NPR, and neither do grants laundered through agencies other than CPB.
The 1994-5 argument about the anachronistic nature of federal subsidies for broadcasters is even stronger now. In 1995, satellite radio had not yet arrived; now millions of people have the option to receive hundreds of channels in their cars and in their homes that have nothing to do with local broadcasters, removing the counterargument that people outside the major cities had a dearth of choice. Furthermore, people can now download podcasts from myriad sources for a wide diversity of listening choices. In this kind of environment, federal money hardly needs to be spent to compete with private enterprise.
Will the firing of Juan Williams for his occasionally heterodox views provide a catalyst for defunding? That would be just fine, even though it shouldn’t be the main reason for ending subsidies to NPR. The main reasons should be that we can’t afford for Congress to play program director any longer — and it really shouldn’t have been their role at all anyway.