There is a simple reason news organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR) should not be funded by taxpayers: Once you get used to living on other people’s money, you have to become a political player to protect the cash flow.
In the political game, it is inevitable that the truth gets shaded and twisted and inconvenient facts get left out. Listen to pretty much any politician’s speech on just about any topic. But what is a necessary part of politics is fatal for a news organization whose only currency is its reputation as a truthful source of news.
It is this dichotomy between the reality of politics and the goals of a news organization that cost NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, her job this week. You could see her collapse and NPR’s desperation even before James O’Keefe’s escapade delivered the fatal blow to Ms. Schiller and her top fundraising aide on Tuesday.
On Monday, the NPR chieftain gave a speech at the National Press Club aimed at bolstering the radio network’s chances of keeping its share of the Obama administration’s nearly half-billion dollar 2012 funding proposal for “public broadcasting.”
She actually argued that because her organization takes huge cash payments - millions of dollars a month - from the very government PBS covers, NPR is actually more independent than news organizations who do not take government money:
“We rely on continued government funding … as a critical cornerstone of public media. … [However], the fact that [NPR] has four sources of revenue - listeners, philanthropy, corporate and government - helps ensure that public media is not beholden to any one source of revenue. Indeed, it is through this diversity of funding that we are able to maintain our journalistic independence,” Ms. Schiller argued.
If the New York Times decided to start taking monthly envelopes of cash from the Democratic National Committee arguing that it was now more independent, more unbiased and more authoritative because it diversified its funding sources beyond circulation and advertising, the whole journalism world would laugh.
The reason is simple. There are many NPR listeners, liberal philanthropies and credulous corporations willing to give money to the troubled radio network, just as there are many subscribers and advertisers willing to pay the New York Times. However, there is only one federal government and one Democratic National Committee.
If NPR’s journalism offends the political agenda of one foundation, they can replace it with another. However, if NPR’s reporting undermines support among its Democratic backers in the federal government, there is no replacement, and NPR loses the “cornerstone” of its funding. That is the opposite of independence, and Ms. Schiller knew that as she spouted the obvious falsehood before a national audience.
Ms. Schiller was quite comfortable with the truth-twisting required of a political operator well before last week. Last month, the NPR chief’s desperation tour included a talk show broadcast by many NPR affiliates.
Said Ms. Schiller, 25 minutes into the hourlong program, “We embrace and support and demonstrate every hour of every day on NPR’s programming the expression of a range of opinion and views. You can’t listen to an NPR program for more than a couple of minutes without hearing the … full spectrum of ideas [so that listeners will] be able to draw their own conclusions.”
The “full spectrum” of opinions on the show, to that point, went from the NPR chief executive and an NPR affiliate host all the way to the top brass of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting System - from big federal funding boosters all the way to really big federal funding boosters.
Later in that show, a Republican did appear for seven minutes to defend the idea of broad federal budgets cuts that included public broadcasting. However, Texas Rep. Kevin Brady had not one negative word to say about public broadcasting. Even after NPR’s attempt at balance, all the show’s guests agreed that public broadcasting was great.
Obviously, the words “expression of a range of views” and the “full spectrum of ideas” mean something very different when they come out of the mouth of an NPR employee.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as the other NPR executive to get the boot this week left the building, he issued an apology claiming: “I made statements [that are] not reflective of my own beliefs.”
There’s a pattern among NPR leaders of statements that are “not reflective” of reality. That’s a big problem for folks who claim to be in the news business, one that doesn’t go away after a couple resignations.
David Mastio is deputy editorial-page editor of The Washington Times.