This article from the New York Times on NPR and public funding is worth a read, as a follow up to last week’s brouhaha. Thanks to Glenn Pearsall in Johnsburg/Glens Falls for sending it along.
The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism will issue its annual State of the Media report on Monday, and you will be unsurprised to learn that journalism remains in broad retreat.
News is still on the march: for the first time ever, more people consumed their news on the Web than with newspapers. That’s great if you’re building an app, but not so great if you’re one of the legacy media companies struggling for relevance. In terms of audience, television networks slipped 3.4 percent, newspapers were down 5 percent, radio fell 6 percent and magazines were down almost 9 percent.
Amid all that creative destruction, there was a one large traditional news organization that added audience, reporters and revenue. That unlikely juggernaut was NPR.
According to the State of the Media report, NPR’s overall audience grew 3 percent in 2010, to 27.2 million weekly listeners, up 58 percent overall since 2000. In the last year, total staff grew 8 percent, and its Web site, npr.org, drew an average of 15.7 million unique monthly visitors, up more than five million visitors. Its foreign bureaus and global footprint continue to grow while other broadcasters slink home.
And while NPR receives a small portion of its operating budget through government money, millions of people also think that its journalism is worthy enough to pay for through contributions, a trick that the rest of news media have had trouble figuring out, to say the least.
Trouble is, NPR has often been better at breaking news than running a news outlet. The current problems started five months ago when Juan Williams, a longtime NPR commentator, was hastily fired for remarks he made about Muslims making him fearful in airports. Then in January, Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news, resigned after a report to the board found her management of the affair wanting.
This past Tuesday, a video made the rounds online in which Ronald Schiller, NPR’s fund-raising executive, was secretly taped at a lunch meeting with people posing as Muslims (What is it with NPR and Muslims anyway?) and made derogatory comments about the Tea Party. Mr. Schiller, who was already planning to leave NPR, resigned ahead of schedule.
On Wednesday, Vivian Schiller, chief executive of NPR (and not related to Mr. Schiller), resigned after a meeting with the board. On Thursday, another NPR fund-raiser was heard in a secretly taped conversation suggesting to the same fake donors that making a donation anonymously would keep federal auditors at bay. She has been put on leave.
NPR’s board keeps rolling bodies out of the back of the truck to slow down the Republicans in the House who want to take away the money for public broadcasting. It doesn’t seem to be working.
But even without all its missteps, NPR would be looking down a gun barrel. The deficit has people in government measuring twice and cutting once, and it’s hard to argue that providing money for a news and information service is at the core of what government should be doing.
“The issue about taxpayers funding public broadcasting isn’t about who gets hired or fired,” said Representative Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina. “It’s about two simple facts: We can’t afford it, and they don’t need it.”
It is an argument that is not just being made here, but in Europe as well, historically a sanctuary for publicly financed media organizations. In 2009 in a now notorious speech, James Murdoch of the News Corporation railed against being forced to compete with the publicly financed BBC, suggesting that “the scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling,” and that the private sector was perfectly capable of informing Britons.
“The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit,” he suggested.
I’ll just skip the joke about a News Corporation executive talking about journalistic independence and point out that the invisible hand is not going to send a lot of reporters to far-flung conflicts or to cover hard news that is the opposite of sexy.
There’s not a lot of money to be made in covering a war that has gone on in Iraq for nearly a decade, but both the BBC and NPR continue to be there. A few networks and some cable stations have taken an interest in covering the insurrection in Libya, but few have made the commitment that both worldwide radio organizations did. BBC paid a dear price last week, when three of its journalists were detained and physically abused while trying to cover the story.
Many in Congress, including Mr. DeMint, have argued that NPR’s serving of news comes with a heaping side dish of squishy liberal ideology. And that’s true to a point. In terms of assignments and sensibility, NPR has always been more blue than red, but it’s not as if it has an overt political agenda. Working in public broadcasting probably disposes you to certain kinds of government assistance — to public broadcasting, for example.
Mr. Schiller, in his secretly taped remarks, seemed to agree, and provided plenty of ammunition for NPR’s critics, even suggesting it might be better off in the long run without public money. And not only did Mr. Schiller call members of the Tea Party racists, but he followed up with a ponderous lecture on a varietal of wine — which is not a winning topic when lunching with devout Muslims, even fake ones — and thus reinforced every extant stereotype of NPR as a collective of wine-sipping, conservative-hating boobs drunk on their own specialness.
But the bias argument misses the point. The fact that NPR is a dot-org and not a dot-com has a lot to do with its success. In cities all over the country, regional newspapers and commercial radio stations have, in many instances, been forced to cut their reporting ambitions in half. Even the better, bigger papers can’t cover all the news of the world, or even the country at large, and that’s where NPR comes in.
Bill Kling, a founding board member, went on to build a goliath at Minnesota Public Radio and a big programming provider, American Public Media. He suggested the current version of NPR was a great big train moving down rickety ancient tracks.
“NPR has been a victim of its own success,” Mr. Kling said. “It never matured in terms of governance as quickly as its news capabilities did. It is controlled by a board from member stations that still think of it primarily as a provider of programming for their stations and not the giant media company it has become.”
Using a minimal amount of government financing as seed money, NPR has generated an array of programming — “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and others — that its member stations scoop up for audiences starved for hard news all over the country.
That doesn’t end the funding argument. The country is in tough financial straits and there are only so many dollars to go around. But in a climate where many public employees are being attacked for being wasteful and inefficient, it would be hard to argue that NPR, despite all the buffoonery in the boardroom, is not doing its job where it counts.
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