When you can listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity for free, who needs NPR? It reaches 33 million listeners through its member stations, with its 36 bureaus and offices around the world, and local coverage produced by more than 270 independent NPR member public radio stations across the country. Republicans hate that. In the House of Representatives they voted their conscience, and this tells us everything we need to know. It’s not about the money.
Four decades ago, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. In his comments about the new law, President Johnson said, “I believe the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as television and radio, and to enlist them in the cause of education.” He further prophesied, “Think of the lives that this would change:–the student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university.”
To provide programming not generally available commercially was the idea that congress foresaw at the time. Lawmakers envisioned educational shows and cultural enrichment programs, not to mention informing the electorate through news programming and in-depth analysis of current issues. Another objective was to make such programs available to less affluent Americans and residents of small communities and rural areas.
The law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting says, “It is in the public interest for the Federal Government to ensure that all citizens of the United States have access to public telecommunications services through all appropriate available telecommunications distribution technologies.”
However, the prescience of Johnson’s comments and the nobility of the legal language evaporated when a hidden camera captured NPR executive Ron Shiller saying that NPR would be better off without federal funding. But that’s not all. Shiller also ripped into the tea party movement as a bunch of “gun toting racists,” adding “and not just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic.”
In response, tea party activist Sarah Palin was not on a hidden camera but on Fox when she said NPR needs to be “on the chopping block.” She told her public audience, “NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids … Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut.”
The proposal to ban any federal money from going to NPR, including funding through competitive grants from federal agencies and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, passed the House 228 to192. Only seven Republicans voted no and all Democrats present voted against it. The public radio organization gets about $5.4 million a year from the federal government. According to the New York Times, “Most of its $65 million budget comes from fees that local stations pay for its programming.”
The GOP gleefully points to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report that says the federal budget deficit would be $2.3 trillion higher than the Obama administration had predicted as if that is good news for them. The national debt at the moment is $14.2 trillion. That is 14.2 million millions. The Republican argument that saving $5.4 million by cutting NPR funds is necessary to reduce the deficit is pretty weak. Their arithmetic does not support their action.
The bill is not likely to pass the senate. So the new House majority has succeeded in passing another victorious failure. If, as I suggested, they voted their conscience, they have shown their constituents a troublesome trend of being more interested in appearance than in substance. Successfully losing is not why they were elected. But that is the message they are sending.