“An awful lot of conservatives listen to NPR,” Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss told his local public radio station this week. The conservative Republican added: “I think total elimination of funding is probably not the wisest thing to do.”
Of course zeroing out government money for NPR is not wise. And we don’t just say that because Cokie has worked for the network for decades and Steve is a regular contributor. We say that as listeners – as some of the 34 million people who tune in every week to hear high-quality reporting from around the nation and the world. Those listeners are of every political persuasion, race, age and income level, as Sen. Chambliss knows.
In a time of huge deficits, every program can expect cuts in federal dollars – that’s an economic decision. But the proposal to end all subsidies for public radio has nothing to do with economics – it’s a political decision, aimed at pleasing those conservatives who rail at the “liberal media.”
An ambush video provided them with ample ammunition. NPR’s former chief fundraiser showed disdain for conservatives and Republicans in his meeting with fake funders. Even though it turned out that the conservative activist who taped Ron Schiller’s remarks also heavily edited them, the damage had been done.
Firing the president of the network did nothing to appease those in Congress calling for cutting off every federal cent, but it did leave NPR leaderless and looking for defenders. So Chambliss’ unexpected endorsement was especially welcome. His statement that NPR “provides a very valuable service” is right on the mark.
We live in a time when what’s going on around the world affects our lives dramatically here at home. Whether it’s the Libyan crisis raising the price of oil or the Japanese disasters lowering the value of stocks or the Chinese energy appetite affecting the temperature of the Earth, it matters to us. And yet, just as the world becomes more and more interconnected, news organizations slammed by a falloff in viewers and readers are shutting down their foreign bureaus.
Not so NPR. From 17 bureaus around the world, reporters fan out to cover the big events of the moment and then stay to do the follow-up, to tell you what happens after the stories die down – to allow you to follow up on happenings in Egypt even after Libya disintegrates into civil war and Japan suffers horrific blows.
NPR is able to do that because its business model works. Contributions to its hundreds of member stations from individuals, corporations and foundations are supplemented by federal dollars. Those stations then pay for network programs. For big-city stations, the amount of public money usually accounts for only about 10 percent of the whole; for tiny rural stations, the percentage climbs much higher.
But those stations are essential to their communities, often providing the only over-the-air news and community service in the area. Without public money, many of those small stations – perhaps as many as 100 – would be forced to turn off their transmitters. Silent stations are not likely to sit well with voters who have come to rely on them as sources of serious and credible news.
In a survey taken by the Pew Center this week, NPR rated as the only news organization whose credibility had gone up in the last decade. All three broadcast networks and CNN saw declines in the number of people who said they believed them most of the time; Fox News remained even.
Listeners believe NPR because they hear real reporters talking to real people about what’s happening on their farms, or in their businesses, or schools or governments. Steve teaches journalistic ethics at George Washington University and points to NPR as a premier carrier of the values of thorough reporting, vetted by editors for accuracy and fairness.
Those basic values often disappear when there’s pressure to file first, edit later in the 24-hour news cycle, and bloggers send out anything that comes into their heads. We trust NPR because we know solid values underlie the coverage.
That’s true of other journalists as well. News organizations look to NPR as an agenda-setter, something Steve learned years ago when a colleague at U.S. News & World Report quoted an NPR piece at an editorial meeting. “We ALL heard it,” came the response. That’s true for tens of millions of Americans. They all hear NPR. Now Congress must hear them and Sen. Chambliss. Members must listen to the listeners and reject any cutoff of funds.
Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), has just been published. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2011, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.