A Voice Between Realms:
Examining the Call to Defund National Public Radio
"I mean, look, Bill I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." - Juan Williams
National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active participation, rather than apathetic helplessness. – William Siemering- "NPR's Purposes"
When National Public Radio fired Juan Williams, it prompted a barrage of politically motivated shellfire. In fact, despite safeguards designed to protect it from government interference and partisan political control, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting itself was attacked.
The Juan Williams tumult has died down. Nonetheless, Republicans promise a renewed and more effective assault on NPR now that they control the US House of Representatives.
This paper examines the events that precipitated this particular uproar, presents a short history of NPR and the role of government in its genesis as "public" media, reveals fiscal realities underlying the debate, and ultimately offers an evaluation of the position that NPR occupies in our society.
On Wednesday October 20, 2010, National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller terminated the contract of Senior News Analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made earlier in the week on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. Williams' comments focused on a burgeoning fear of Muslims in the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the ensuing "war on terror".
In a statement, NPR said that Williams' comments were, "... inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR" (Folkenflik). Prior to his termination, Williams worked as both an NPR analyst, and as a regular contributor to Fox News. His recurrent appearances on shows like the O'Reilly Factor, Fox News Sunday and Special Report with Bret Baier were frequently viewed as controversial, and critics suggested that Williams often altered his commentary to suit the forum he was addressing.
Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went so far as to call Williams, "...America's most two-faced senior black correspondent" (Norman, The Double Life of Juan Williams). In another instance, he suggested that Williams knew that he was, "... actually fired for being two-faced" (Norman, Juan Williams, the $2 million martyr). Within twenty-four hours of his NPR contract termination, Williams accepted a $2 million contract with Fox News.
Many have perceived NPR's firing of Williams as an act of censorship, and de facto proof of the organization's liberal bias. As a result, a host of conservative figures, most notably John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Jim DeMint have called on the U.S. government to "cease funding" NPR. In an open letter to President Obama, Sarah Palin says, "At a time when our country is dangerously in debt and looking for areas of federal spending to cut, I think we've found a good candidate for defunding" (Palin).
Importantly, this is not the first time that public broadcasting in America has been threatened in this manner. Mrs. Palin finds herself in good company. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (McCourt 1). In 1980, President, Ronald Reagan spearheaded an effort to phase out public broadcasting's federal support in effort to "reinforce marketplace ideology in the public sector" (McCourt 1). Over a decade later, after the Republican sweep of mid-term elections in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed the elimination of federal funding for CPB questioning the, "... legitimacy of public broadcasting as an American institution" (Engelman 3). In January of 1995, Gingrich's colleagues proposed a bill to eliminate CPB statutory authority while Larry Pressler, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee simultaneously called for the privatization of public broadcasting (Engelman 3). All of these attempts proved fruitless.
In keeping with the spirit of these failed efforts, on November 18, 2010 House Democrats rejected a Republican proposal to "defund" NPR. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and fellow Republican Doug Lambourn had authored legislation defunding NPR's "parent company" the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In a joint statement, Lambourn and Cantor said, " Make no mistake, it is not the role of government to tell news organizations how to operate. What is avoidable however, is providing taxpayer funds to news organizations that promote a partisan point of view" (Fox News.com). Although this effort was unsuccessful, now that power has shifted within the House, it is reasonable to expect it might reemerge.
At the center of the NPR defunding controversy is the quantity of "government funding" they receive. Estimates regarding the significance of taxpayer-based revenue to NPR's budget have varied wildly. MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell recently reported that between 1 and 3% of NPR's budget comes from federal funds (Finkelstein), whereas Mark Browning of the conservative website, American Thinker puts the number closer to 25% (Browning).
The real facts are not hard to find. Soon we will provide an evaluation of the economics based on financial statements that are made public by the CPB, NPR and NPR member stations in their role as tax-exempt, government sanctioned, non-profit, charitable organizations. Before we do however, let's examine the history of NPR and its relationship to the government and related organizations in order to better understand the ideology and theoretical motivations behind public broadcasting.
Public Radio: A Brief History
National Public Radio has its roots in the early educational broadcast movement. In his seminal work, NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio, Michael McCauley recounts the following events. In 1900, scientists at the University of Wisconsin began to experiment with "wireless telegraphy". By 1914, they were able to secure a license for an experimental radio station called 9 XM. The school eventually took control of the license in 1916 and made the first voice and music broadcast in 1917. This station would later become Wisconsin Public Radio's flagship WHA-AM. At the end of the 1920's, more than 200 licenses were issued for educational stations (14).
In the late 1920's, the Federal Radio Commission was forced to enact stricter engineering requirements in order to decrease instances of unregulated broadcasting. This, in combination with the effects of the Great Depression, reduced the number of educational stations on the AM dial to just forty-three by 1933 (ibid. 15).
In 1951, the Ford Foundation, which was initially established with a gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford (Ford Foundation), created a subsidiary known as the Educational Television and Radio Center (ERTC). By 1960, the ERTC began to explore the feasibility of an east coast educational radio network in collaboration with the managers of WGBH-Boston. The Educational Radio Network debuted in 1961 with six stations and was experimentally funded by the Ford Foundation through 1963. At that time, the Ford Foundation decided that it would increase the funding to the ERTC from $2 million to $6 million annually, but those resources would be reserved exclusively for television (McCauley 17).
As a result, in 1964 the First National Conference on the Long-Range Financing of ETV was called by the National Association for Educational Broadcasters under a grant from the United States Office of Education. At this conference, Boston banker and co-founder of WGBH-Boston, Ralph Lowell, called for a presidential commission to study the financial status and future funding of public broadcasting (McCourt 34-35). President Johnson, who had amassed much of his personal wealth through the operation of a commercial television station in Texas, declined (Mitchell 30). Concerned with raising the ire of powerful political commercial broadcast interests, the Johnson administration suggested that a private committee would be more appropriate (Mitchell 30). Based on this recommendation, Lowell approached the Carnegie Foundation in 1965, and as a result, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television was formed. In 1967, it published a report entitled, Public Television: A Plan for Action. This report called for a series of measures including:
The improvement of facilities and funding for existing stations.
Action by Congress to establish a non-profit corporation for the funding of public broadcasting.
Long range funding of this corporation via an excise tax on the sale of consumer electronics.
Presidential appointment of one half of the corporate board of this organization.
Johnson sent a proposed bill, based on these recommendations to Congress. It came back with the following changes:
The excise tax was eliminated.
The President would appoint all 15 board members, with no more than eight from one political party.
Public broadcasters would be barred from editorializing and endorsing political candidates.
The bill, with its changes, was signed into law on November 7th, 1967 (McCauley 18-23). National Public Radio is a direct result of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 which sought to further the development of public radio and television broadcasting for, "... instructional, educational, and cultural purposes" (United States. Cong. House). On the day of signing, President Lyndon Johnson declared, "While we work every day to produce new goods to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act" (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library).
This effort was funded in a unique way through the establishment of a private, non-profit business entity known as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. President Johnson explained, "It will get part of its support from our Government. But it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent – and it will belong to all of our people" (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library).
Surprisingly, given its ambition, the bill met with little resistance and was enacted with, "...unparalleled speed when compared with other new pieces of legislation" (Burke 230). The ratification of the bill, and the subsequent establishment and subsidizing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) paved the way for the formation of National Public Radio (NPR) less than three years later.
Within three years, NPR as we know it today was established. The first year CPB funding for radio was $260,000 (McCauley 23). National Public Radio went live with coverage of Senate hearings on the War in Vietnam with just thirty employees and ninety charter member stations. Today, NPR operates the second largest radio group in America (second only to Clear Channel) and has more than 300 employees in its news staff alone. NPR programs are broadcast on over 900 stations and are heard by over 27 million people every week (NPR). Given this rapid growth, success in the marketplace, and genesis in government funding, it is reasonable to return to the question of taxpayer based funding and its ongoing role in the operations of NPR. Before we do the numbers, it is important to point out that although NPR could not exist today without the government funding provided to the CPB by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, it was ultimately a combination of both private and government funding that allowed for the development of NPR.
Let's Do the Numbers
The chart below provides a good starting point for an examination the role of taxpayer funding in the finances of public radio.
Figure 1- Source: NPR Financial Reporting and Corporation for Public Broadcasting
On their website, NPR states, "NPR's revenue comes primarily from fees paid by our member stations, contributions from corporate sponsors, institutional foundation grants, gifts from major donors, and fees paid by users of The Public Radio Satellite System. We receive no direct federal funding for operations. The largest share of NPR's revenue comes from program fees and station dues paid by member stations that broadcast NPR programs" (NPR).
Although this statement is technically correct, it is important to understand how CPB appropriations are disbursed. The CPB is more than 99% funded through U.S. Federal Government tax based appropriations (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting). These appropriations (at least those earmarked for radio) are then allocated out to "local public radio stations" (ibid.), which are in almost all instances, dues paying NPR member stations. Programming fees, membership dues, and distribution service charges paid by these stations comprise 49% of NPR's overall revenue (NPR). The diagram below illustrates how government funds flow from organization to organization.
Figure 2- How Federal Funding Flows to NPR
With member stations serving as the largest providers of revenue to NPR, it becomes essential to examine their financial position as well, in an effort to achieve a more thorough understanding of the broader economic landscape.
We can see by this chart that 10.1% of member station revenue comes directly from the CPB. Another 5.8% originates from federal, state and local governments. 13.6% of revenue is derived from universities. When one subtracts out private colleges and universities, this number comes down to roughly 10.5% (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting). Some quick math reveals that a little over 26% of member station revenue (for FY2008) comes from tax-based sources. By extrapolation, this accounts for roughly 12.7% of NPR's revenue. With total revenues of $152,833,387 in FY2008 (NPR), slightly more than $19.4 million originates from tax-based sources.
This number falls squarely in between the estimates offered by the warring camps earlier in this paper. At 12.7%, it is clear that taxpayer based funding is important to NPR, but may not be absolutely critical to their continued operation.
If anything, this financial evaluation shows the importance of the role of government money in the continued operations of NPR's individual member stations. It is important to remember that not all taxpayer-based funding passes through member stations to NPR. These stations use these monies to pay for operating costs that are separate, and apart from, membership dues and programming fees. If prohibited from using taxpayer-based revenue to purchase content from NPR, member stations would be forced to turn to private, for-profit commercial content producers. This would almost certainly result in increased costs.
Arguably, larger member stations might enjoy access to private individual and institutional resources that would enable them to survive a 26% budget cut while facing increased programming costs. However, it is doubtful that the smaller stations which have traditionally served more rural, sparsely populated and economically challenged areas would fare as well. This realization returns us to the ideology that informs the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and educational broadcasting as a whole. Consider again, the words of Lyndon Johnson who suggested that public broadcasting at its best "...would help to make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens" (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library).
NPR as the Medium of the Public Sphere: What This Examination Reveals
Through our brief examination of its history and financial profile, we have seen that National Public Radio inhabits a kind of cultural and economic no-man's-land. It exists, and has always existed, with one foot in the private and another in the public realm, without wholly belonging to either. Historically speaking, NPR would not exist as it does today without the government funding that was initially afforded to the CPB subsequent to the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
In turn, the Public Broadcasting Act itself would not have come into existence without the largess of the Carnegie Corporation. We have also seen how a combination of government and private funding (both individual and institutional) serve to keep NPR and its member stations operational. Both government and private assistance are essential to their continued survival. It is from this perspective that we can commence to understand NPR in the context of what Jürgen Habermas describes as "the public sphere".
For Habermas, the "public sphere" is, "...a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed." In this sphere, "Access is guaranteed to all citizens" (Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article). It is evident from the comments of President Johnson offered earlier in this paper, that it was the government's intention to fund public broadcasting in an effort to afford communications access to the entirety of the population, thereby granting access to "all citizens." Consider Section 396 (a)(10) of the legislation, "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 distributed technologies" (United States. Cong. House).
Even more importantly, National Public Radio can seen as an exemplar of the public sphere because it functions somewhere between the "private realm" and the "sphere of public authority" (Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 30). For Habermas, the "private realm" is made up by civil society (which would more likely be understood today as the business world) and family interaction. The "sphere of public authority" is comprised of the state. The public sphere sits in the middle of both of these social arenas, yet it is a part of neither (in an Althussarian sense, one might suggest that the public sphere occupies the ground between ISAs and RSAs). It instead acts as a kind of mediator, or buffer zone between the two. The public sphere offers an arena in which private citizens can meet, engage in the analysis and debate of contemporary issues, and ultimately come to informed conclusions with regard to the topics at hand. National Public Radio is similarly situated.
As private, non-profit organizations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR cannot be considered to be state apparatus. In fact, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 specifically provides, " Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the content… of … programs and services" (United States. Cong. House).
Equally important, because NPR and the CPB exist in order to propagate non-commercial educational programming, they cannot be viewed as occupying the "private realm". Again, returning to the act we see, " No public broadcast station may make its facilities available to any person for the broadcasting of any advertisement" (ibid.). By operating outside of the private and governmental bailiwicks, " They then behave neither like business or professional people transacting private affairs, nor like members of a constitutional order subject to the legal constraints of a state bureaucracy" (Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article). In this way then, I would argue that National Public Radio is uniquely positioned in such a way as to serve as the medium of the public sphere.
Conclusions: Praxis Through Inaction
In the wake of the Juan Williams controversy, a chorus of voices has been heard from all ends of the political arena. Kneejerk reactions on both sides have either called for an immediate cessation of government funding to NPR, or an increase in that funding.
As we have seen here, both of these views reveal a fundamental lack of economic understanding. Even a cursory review of financial allocations reveals that the federal government does not directly fund NPR. More thoughtful voices have understood the role of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and have suggested modifying their allocations one-way or the other.
Much to my own surprise (I myself am a lifelong fan of NPR), after conducting this examination, I would propose that no action be taken either way. As I previously suggested, complete cessation of tax-payer based funding to NPR member stations would have a devastating effect on smaller stations in predominantly poor rural markets. These are precisely the markets that the Broadcast Act of 1967 was designed to reach. Additionally, a termination of government funding would put public radio increasingly at the mercy of institutional sponsors.
It is already an ominous sign that large transnational media conglomerates have become some of the largest donors to NPR. Subsidiaries of News Corporation, the parent company of Fox News (which has been leading the defund NPR crusade since Williams' firing) donated over $500,000 to NPR in 2008 (NPR). An increased need for private funding could easily lead to Faustian bargaining that could compromise NPR's position. Similarly, increased taxpayer based funding could lead to a state desire for amplified government control and interference in NPR programming, be it in direct or indirect forms.
I propose a kind of praxis of inaction. NPR and the CPB are positioned unlike any other media outlets in the United States. They are not beholden to advertisers, nor are they entirely accountable to the state. The occasional eruption of outrage on the part of politicians or pundits is inevitable given public broadcasting's distinctive location on the political/ economic/ cultural stage. Like the demigods of ancient Greek mythology that were born of the union of gods and mortals, public broadcasting exists as an amalgam or hybridization of two culturally distinct groups, yet belongs to neither.
In another sense, public broadcasting can be seen as analogous to the mythic "trickster", who exists in a state of liminality, "...betwixt and between social structures" (Shure). Like the Trickster, public broadcasting's existence in liminality allows, "... access to the social structure at any number of points ...," consider, " The trickster may flit across the borders at any time, penetrating the social structure at will, but he cannot stay here. He must return to that state of betwixt and between in order to manifest his powers" (ibid.).
To significantly alter the way that NPR and the CPB are funded could not help but upset the betwixt and between balance they currently enjoy, and inevitably undermine the very spirit of their founding. It would push public broadcasting into one of the realms that bookend its cultural position, and silence its liminal voice as the medium of the public sphere.
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