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Targeting NPR
Despite studies that show public radio’s audience is diverse and its news coverage bias-free, the White House’s hatchet man threatens our most vital source of broadcast news

THERE WAS A certain been-there/done-that quality to recent reports that public television is under ideological attack from the right. After all, conservatives have been targeting the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) for decades. In the mid 1990s, when Newt Gingrich was in full feather, the right even threatened to cut off all government funding. So even though it was distressing to learn that Kenneth Tomlinson, the political hack appointed by President Bush to chair the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), had developed an unhealthy obsession with Bill Moyers, it was hardly surprising.

But it turns out that Tomlinson not only has eyes that can’t see but ears that can’t hear — and that he is going after National Public Radio (NPR) as well. For those of us who have pretty much given up on public TV, but who hold fast to public radio as our most vital source of broadcast news, this was a distressing development, to say the least.

Tomlinson has told interviewers that he is concerned NPR is biased toward the Arab side in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It’s an allegation that may have some merit, although such bias is far more evident in the endless hours of BBC programming that many public stations use to fill airtime than it is in any of NPR’s own programs.) He has also appointed two ombudsmen — a not-very-liberal liberal and a rock-ribbed conservative — to monitor NPR and PBS programs, even though NPR, at least, has had an ombudsman on staff for several years. And CPB officials have made ominous sounds of late that the time has come to move public radio back to the days when its main mission was to broadcast classical, jazz, blues, and folk music.

Tomlinson’s attack was surprising on two levels. First, unlike public television, NPR today is an enormous success. Its weekly audience has grown from three million to about 23 million since the 1970s, precisely because it has abandoned music programming in favor of news and public affairs. With the audience for television network news aging and shrinking, and with PBS offering little more than the hypercautious NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR’s drive-time programs — Morning Edition and All Things Considered — have established themselves as the broadcast news vehicles of choice for a mobile, multitasking society (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, April 15).

Second, and perhaps more to the point, public radio is not nearly as dependent on government funding as public television is. The conservative critique of NPR is not new (you may recall that it was mocked as "Radio Managua" during the 1980s), and it’s hardly unusual for right-wingers to call for an end to public radio’s taxpayer subsidy. Yet, thanks in large measure to a $200 million bequest from the estate of McDonald’s heir Joan Kroc, as well as an upsurge in corporate underwriting (i.e., advertising), NPR today receives less than one percent of its annual budget of about $100 million from the CPB, the nonprofit, quasi-governmental agency that funds public-broadcasting ventures.

Public radio is not entirely invulnerable to political pressure. Forty to 50 percent of its operating budget comes from fees paid by its 780 member stations — and those stations, in turn, receive anywhere from five percent to 15 percent of their funds from the CPB. Large, affluent urban stations, such as Boston’s WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM), are on the low end of that funding spectrum, and could probably survive a government cutoff without skipping more than half a beat. But stations in rural areas and distressed cities are quite dependent on CPB funding, and if they were unable to pay their NPR fees, the entire system would suffer. Still, public radio is strikingly independent compared with its TV counterparts: PBS receives about 10 percent of its funding from the government, and even WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44), one of the most powerful stations in the network, depends on federal funds to pay for nearly 18 percent of its local television operations.

Given the financial good health of public radio, the question may not be so much one of whether the medium can survive the depredations of Kenneth Tomlinson, but, rather, if the time has come to take the final step, and move to a new system that would be entirely privatized. There’s little question that it could be done. But in the tribal world that is public radio, it may be difficult to accomplish. NPR is not just dependent on the local stations for financing; the stations literally own NPR, and a majority of NPR board members are managers of public radio stations. This creates an awkward dilemma, since steps that might help NPR — particularly a more aggressive embrace of satellite radio and other emerging technologies — could wind up hurting the stations.

There’s hardly any reason to panic over the future of public radio. Tomlinson’s ability to wreak financial havoc is limited, and he seems to know it. During a recent appearance on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, for instance, he sounded more than willing to back down, and his obsequiousness toward the host bordered on the embarrassing. But there’s no question that public radio finds itself at something of a crossroads.

TOM ASHBROOK had had enough. The host of WBUR’s On Point wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe last Thursday comparing Tomlinson’s renewed emphasis on music with the priorities of state radio in the former Soviet Union. "Years ago, on the other side of a Cold War wall, Soviet citizens got music instead of news when the news was too difficult," Ashbrook wrote. "Today, there are those who would build a high partisan wall between Americans facing a difficult world. But news and understanding will ultimately unite, not divide. So tear down that wall, Tomlinson. Don’t build it higher."

Still, people within the public-radio community — including Ashbrook himself — sound as though they would like to avoid an all-out battle if they can. When I spoke with Ashbrook, for instance, he expressed mild annoyance at the Globe’s headline (THE ASSAULT ON NPR), saying, "My intent was a little more collegial than that." He added: "I got a lot of feedback from [NPR headquarters in] Washington on that piece. But basically, nobody wants it to break into open warfare on the NPR side. Everybody would like to work it out calmly here. I’m all for it."

More than anything, public-radio folks are puzzled, given that two polls conducted on behalf of the CPB reveal that, for most listeners, bias is not a problem. According to a report by the CPB that’s posted on the agency’s Web site, 22 percent of respondents believe NPR’s news coverage betrays a liberal bias — considerably less than the 31 percent who say the same about the three major broadcast networks and CNN. Another nine percent believe that NPR has a conservative bias. But the largest proportion — 38 percent — believe there is no bias in NPR’s coverage. When Tomlinson was interviewed by Diane Rehm, she asked him repeatedly about those findings, as well as similar numbers for public television. He didn’t have much of a comeback except to say over and over that Bill Moyers is a liberal, and that a congressman had complained to him about NPR’s Israeli-Palestinian coverage.

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Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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