Calling for NPR to Support Themselves Misses the Point

I started reading Fox News so I can develop my own “fair and balanced” opinion of how biased their reporting is. Now WHRO, an NPR affiliate, has Fox to thank for getting me to renew my membership this year.

Fox News illustrates two good arguments for supporting NPR. One, as you might guess, is that Fox is such a source of misinformation that it’s important to have professional news sources to counter their right-wing spin. But Fox actually illustrates another good reason, and it’s one that you might not expect.

Most of Fox’s reporting is factual, with a right wing bias but not so distorted as to be untrue. Unfortunately, many of their articles are so distorted. An example of an article so misleading that it’s basically untrue is Fox’s reporting of Democrats opposing a troop funding bill. Democrats didn’t oppose troop funding, they opposed the anti-abortion and anti-environmental riders that were attached to the bill. The story didn’t mention the riders, and that information was too integral to the story to be left out without dishonest intent.

If Fox eliminated the overtly dishonest articles, they could still have a right wing bias. They could concentrate on the positive aspects of U.S. military actions, report gaffs made by Democrats, and point out the downsides providing medical care for poor children. But their reporting could still be factual and there agenda would, as it does now, lead them to occasionally pick up stories that other news agencies miss. Thus, even a news organization with an agenda can be a valuable asset to keeping the public informed, as long as the reports were honest.

Similarly, while we can debate NPR’s so called liberal bias, it’s still true that they pick up on stories that other agencies miss. No news source can report every story; editors have to make choices. And while some news agencies actually to try to be “fair and balanced”, it is impossible for any agency to block out self-interest from the decision making process. Thus, the source of funding in any news agency has an affect on the stories that agency chooses to cover. NPR’s unique funding model doesn’t make them liberal (imho), but it makes them different from news sources that rely solely on commercial funding.

Most news agencies are competing for the same corporate dollars. This doesn’t mean that commercial news cannot be trusted at all, but it means that the need to stay afloat will have an affect what stories they choose to report. Since the same wealthy companies advertise on different stations, it’s unlikely that any of the ad-funded news sources will put their heart into investigating a story that will upset their biggest sponsors. Additionally, newspapers and news stations are being gobbled up by corporate giants, so in reality there aren’t that many sources of news out there anymore. Thus, if we rely solely on commercially funded news, some important stories will go unreported or under-emphasized.

Another problem with commercial news is America’s shrinking attention span and addiction to entertainment. Today’s potential news customers need to have their attention grabbed by headlines, and the headlines that promote fear and anger are the ones that grab attention. Consider a scenario where a foreign leader makes vague remarks which may indicate hostile intent. The headline, “Foreign Leader calls for Destruction of America” grabs attention better than “Foreign Leader’s Words Constitute Possible Threat to U.S.” It is clear that in order to stay afloat with commercial funding, news agencies are forced to exaggerate threats and make people fearful or hateful of foreign nations, local crime, or poor people scamming the system and stealing tax dollars.

The solution is to have at least one news source that has an alternate funding model. Unfortunately, NPR depends so much on commercial funding that they’re not independent from corporate sponsors, but the money they get from contributers and the small amount of money that they get from the government has the effect of splitting their loyalty. They are obliged to serve the public good, not just to support commercial interests.

People who call for NPR to alter their content so they can fund themselves completely miss the point. As Donald Kaul notes, NPR can survive without government funding, “It’s not that much money”. But public funding “enforces a responsibility that private institutions don’t share.”

Even those who feel NPR has a bias know that NPR’s news staff is among the best in the industry. NPR doesn’t just reprint news releases; they send reporters out in the field and get eyewitness accounts. They run polls, examine documents and conduct extensive interviews. They analyze data, and produce the most in-depth reports of any news organization, such as their explanation of Mideast protests. Their funding model, part donation, part commercial sponsorship, and part public support, allows them more flexibility than any other news agency to follow information and report as they see fit.

A lot of stories that you’ve heard were originally broken by NPR, and might not otherwise have been picked up by other news agencies. As Paul Glickman wrote in the OCRegister, “NPR broke the story that the Obama administration was grossly underestimating the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf each day.” In that same article, Mr. Glickman quotes Ted Koppell, “I have been an unabashed fan of NPR for many years and have stolen untold excellent ideas from its programming.” Only NPR was brave enough to break the story about Trent Lott’s support for Strom Thurman’s presidential campaign (during which Thurman said, “… there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters …”), and NPR was the first news agency to explore illegal employment practices in the U.S. Justice Department. NPR just received awards for reporting on Pakistan, the injustices of the bail bond system, and an epidemic of rape on college campuses.

The politicians who call for defunding NPR are, for the most part, the same politicians who’s popularity depends on same fear and hatred that commercial news agencies depend on. They are the first to call for military action; the first to call for eliminating aid to the poor; the first to call for deregulation, etc. Sometimes those viewpoints are correct. Sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes aid programs cause more harm than good. Sometimes regulations are too restrictive. But military action might be ill advised, and mire us in long wars in nations that were never really much of a threat to begin with. Pulling aid to the poor is not only mean, it’s sometimes short-sighted and self-destructive. Enforcing regulations might prevent environmental or financial disasters. If we’re going to make intelligent decisions, we should hear different points of view.

You don’t have to like NPR to acknowledge the professionalism of NPR’s staff. You don’t have to agree with NPR’s choices to understand that without an alternatively funded source of news, many important stories will go unreported. We are smarter when we have more viewpoints to consider.

The bottom line is, politicians who call for defunding NPR are trying to make us more ignorant by eliminating one of the only news agencies not funded by the same sources that fund the others. We would all suffer from the loss.

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