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Why NPR Should Urge Congress to End Its Subsidy

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What do they put in the water cooler over at NPR? First, they fire Juan Williams in October for comments he made on Fox News Channel -- and Vivian Schiller, the CEO of public radio, smilingly suggests he needs to have his head examined.

This week, a sting video shows NPR Foundation President Ron Schiller (no relation) saying that tea party activists were "seriously racist" and telling two purported Muslim program underwriters that there aren't enough "non-Zionist" news organizations.

 Vivian Schiller and Ron Schiller both have been forced to resign. But, with a new, large Republican majority in the House of Representatives, NPR leaders could hardly have done a better job of persuading Congress to zero out public radio funding.

NPR's response to defunding threats has been incoherent. Its spokesmen point out that NPR itself receives relatively little public money. But then they saying defunding would be disastrous because more money goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds public radio stations that buy NPR programming.

Let me offer what is intended as a helpful suggestion to NPR: Don't fight defunding. Instead, work with Congress to get NPR and CPB off the public payroll.

It may be painful in the short run. But in the long run, you'll be a better organization -- and you won't have to worry about pleasing politicians.

There's a precedent pretty closely on point: the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Back in 1994, when Republicans unexpectedly won majorities in both houses of Congress, the National Trust was suddenly threatened with a fund cutoff.

The organization had been campaigning against a proposed theme park near the Manassas battlefield in Northern Virginia, which made some congressional Republicans angry. Congress seemed likely to cut off the one-third of National Trust funding that came from the federal government.

Rather than fight that effort, Dick Moe, then head of the National Trust and before that a longtime top aide to Walter Mondale, decided to join it. He approached Ralph Regula, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction, and proposed a three-year draw-down of federal funding.

That would give his organization enough time to develop alternative sources of funding, he thought. And, as he correctly judged, it took the wind from the sails of those Republicans who wanted funds cut off immediately.

In retrospect, Moe has said, it was the best thing that could have happened to his organization. It prompted the National Trust to reach out to citizens and donors who shared its vision. And it allowed the organization to take politically controversial stands without fear of political retribution.

The National Trust is thriving today. It has undertaken major projects, like a splendid restoration of James Madison's home, Montpelier. It publishes a first-rate magazine. It has developed a large constituency of contributors (I give a few bucks every year) who appreciate its work. It does not have to do the bidding of political masters.

NPR today has a much larger constituency than the National Trust had 16 years ago and much less dependence on federal support. It has a news product of great distinctiveness and, many believe, high quality. It has millions of loyal followers, many of them already contributors.

Much if not all of NPR's programming already attracts thinly (and irritatingly) disguised advertising. I'm sure the NPR demographic is one many other advertisers would like to target.

At the same time, the case for government support of public broadcasting is far weaker than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was far less variety in broadcasting and more reason to doubt that public radio could come up with a commercially viable product.

"It is very clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding," Ron Schiller told the pretend Muslims in the sting video.

"I just think and believe and totally expect that they can survive in the private market," says Rep. Doug Lamborn, who is leading the move to defund NPR in the House.

When you have both sides in such agreement, it's obviously time to make a deal. The Schillers' hamhandedness has made defunding likely. NPR and CPB have a window of opportunity to shape the terms and conditions of defunding. If they have any doubts, they should call Dick Moe.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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