Thursday, March 10, 2011

Okay, let me get this out of my system (NPR)

Okay, I'm probably going to make more than a few enemies with this post, let it never be said I let the weight of public opinion steer me. Money has been a hot topic (hotter than usual) in the latest political news. That is to say your money, my money and the government's money (local, state and federal). We are making a lot of hard decisions lately, and the fiasco in Wisconsin is probably not going to be the last of it by any means. There are already rumblings and legislative actions in Ohio and Idaho, and from what I have read are in serious discussions in Kansas.  My point here is not to discuss unions. No mater what the left says, the major issue here is not the unions, but the fact that we as a nation can't live up to the financial promises we have made in the past, so we are making cuts. Unions are major obstacles to some of the proposed cuts, so yes, they are going to get put on the firing line. I think that is about as non-partisan as I can put the issue.

Anyway, I don't even claim to have the answers to this mess. I know where I stand on some issues, not so much on others, and am kind of playing each hand as it is dealt to me. The country is in some tight times, and as someone who has been unemployed a few times myself, I understand what it means to cut back, pray and hope for the best. I do, however, have some very firm opinions about where some cuts should come from. Now, before I name my targets, let me admit up front that neither of these are bank-breaking investments. Between them, they represent less than 1% of the federal budget as I understand it.

Privitize NPR (100%) yes, that's a more polite way of saying "de-fund it"

DON'T SHOOT!  I know, I know, I just probably got half of my friends pissed off at me, and the other half worked up into a conservative-inspired frenzy. Both sides can just sit down a let their heart rates settle; pitch forks and Molotov cocktails (click on the link btw, I actually found the history of the name interesting) won't do any of us any good. 

First of all, when I say NPR, I am actually naming its parent entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as its subsidiaries, Public Broadcasting Services, and National Public Radio. I honestly don't know if that is an all-inclusive list, but I wanted to point out that NPR doesn't exist in a vacuum (and demonstrate that I was aware of that fact).  Furthermore, the federal government does not, to my knowledge, directly fund NPR in any way. Federal dollars are apportioned out to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who in turn decides how to further distribute them independently of Washington. (I honestly don't know if there is any unofficial input from congress on the issue, but lacking evidence to that effect, I am honestly happy to assume there is little to none). I've heard a bunch of different numbers as to how much money makes it to NPR, and depending on how you count the dollars, they are all correct in their own way (and I am not implying deception in any way). But the bottom line is that the largest fraction I have heard is 10% of NPR's operating cost is paid for by Washington, and the smallest is 1%. Take from that what you will, personally I am just going to point out that we are not talking about half, or even a quarter of total funds.

As a news outlet, NPR does some excellent coverage. Their humanities/human interest stories are unique, and enjoyable. They have some of the best coverage of the arts that I have been able to find for the casual listener, and their movie reviews are thorough, even though I rarely agree with them (but I don't agree with most movie reviewers, so this is hardly a black mark). Also, they are one of the few stations that do music reviews, and I will be honest, these critics are willing to go out there and really test their personal boundaries at times. Honestly, my hat is off to the lot of you.

But then we get to politics, and the whole thing falls apart. In my opinion, NRP wears its political affiliation on its sleeves, and more or less pays lip service to the idea of journalistic independence. My personal pet peeve (and NPR is by no means the only offender here) is whenever there is a story that puts sex and politics in the same headline. If a democratic politician were caught with his fly open at the wrong time, the headline was usually "Senator so-an-so has been accused of inappropriate conduct." However, when a republican made the same mistake, the headline was more like "Senator so-and-so, a 4 term republican from [state name/district] has been accused of an ongoing extramarital affair with a coworker. The Senator, a [insert flavor of protestantism] Christian denies the allegations, but evidence has surfaced...".

I know, you may think I'm just parroting this from a copy of the "Limbaugh letter", or something, but I'm not. I listened to Morning Edition for 5 years during my commute to work, and after a while I started actually keeping track of this. Low and behold, if they ever did say the party affiliation, it was republican, and if it was a republican, they made sure to mention that he was a Christian (if he actually was, that is). But if he was a democrat, party affiliation and religion were never mentioned, and I would have to figure out which side of the aisle the guy was on when I next got to a computer.

Sex and politics are hardly the only time NPR flirts with the border of journalistic impartiality. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 the coverage was heavy on the consequences of war, but light on its causes. War is hell, I'll be the first to admit it, and I don't use the term "hell" lightly. But after weeks of listening to NRP's coverage, you would think that Hezbollah were throwing firecrackers across the border. Israeli troops found large civilian vehicles modified to fire salvos of ballistic rockets, some the diameter of phone poles, without looking like rocket launchers even after they were fired. But you wouldn't have known it listening to NPR.

The bigger the issue, the more fodder there is to shuffle through. To say that NPR's leadership was against the US invasion of Iraq would be like saying that the sun rises in the east. Morning Edition was practically its own cheer-leading squad for President Obama's healthcare reform push. And on that note, they gave Hillary Clinton some huge passes in the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign trail while effectively keeping Sarah Palin under a microscope later on in the game.

To wrap all this up, I'm not even saying that all of these opinions should be shut down. Frankly, I think impartial journalism is a lofty goal that will never be achieved. The best practical approach to it that I have seen is to keep the reporting staff balanced so that personalities help to offset each other. My point here is that I don't think anyone can truly argue that NPR is independent. Their corporate culture leans left of center (how far seems to vary, depending on time, topic and caffeine level).

As such, I am arguing that the US needs to get out of the news business, period. And for those who know me, believe me when I say that I would be pushing for this just as hard if we were talking about a conservative slant to the same organization. To effect this, congress would need to add conditions to all grants handed down to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, specifically telling them that they can not pass those funds to NPR.

The truth of the matter is that if CPB plays its cards right, such a move would do little. Federal money would be moved to grants for non-political productions and projects, (PBS kids, for example) and money from private donations could then be cycled to NPR.

So, if the whole thing is a wash with little net effect, why am I suggesting we go through all the trouble of doing it in the first place?

Like I said, this is an issue where I stand on principle more than anything else. And the principle here is that I don't like the idea that ANY of my tax money is going towards helping someone like Nina Totengerg stay on the air. Her idea of journalistic ethos can best be described as liberals are usually right, and republicans are always wrong, even if they have a point. The Goverment doesn't own enough of CPB or NPR to influence their decisions, and they shouldn't be handing tax dollars, directly or indirectly, to a radio station that makes toting the party line (any party line) its status quo. As far as I am concerned, they should be able to do just fine on their own, let them sink or swim just like every other news agency.

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