Thu. May 30th, 2024

Why Should NPR Count on Listeners Instead of Taxpayers Like You?

Samantha Parker By Samantha Parker May27,2024

It has been a rough week for the National Public Radio (NPR) after a respected editor, Uri Berliner, wrote a scathing account of the political bias at the media outlet.

Although NPR responded by denying the allegations, the controversy has rekindled the debate over the danger of the government selectively funding media outlets. That is a debate that does not simply turn on the question of bias, but more fundamentally on why the public should support this particular media company to the exclusion of others.

The Biden administration and Congress continue to struggle with a massive budget deficit and growing national debt, which stands at $34 trillion debt and is approximately 99 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

Despite the need to make tough cuts in core public programs, the public subsidy for NPR has been protected as sacrosanct for decades.  

NPR insists that only roughly one percent of its budget comes from the government. But that is misleading, due to a federal law that distributes funds through local stations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside for CPB in fiscal 2026, a sizable increase from 2025.

In the meantime, NPR’s audience has been declining. Indeed, that trend has been most pronounced since 2017 — the period when Berliner said the company began to openly pursue a political narrative and agenda to counter Donald Trump. The company has reported falling advertising revenue and, like many outlets, has made deep staff cuts to deal with budget shortfalls. 

For the record, despite the growing political bias shown by NPR news programs, I still view it to be unmatched in its quality and some of its programming. But the budget fight again raises a longstanding constitutional concern over subsidies for media by the federal government. It is not unconstitutional per se, but it continues to be an anomaly in a system that tries to separate government from the press.

The U.S. has never had a true “wall of separation” for media like the one Thomas Jefferson once referenced between church and state. Indeed, in 1791, Madison declared that Congress had an obligation to improve the “circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people” and sponsored the Post Office Act of 1791, which offered newspapers cut-rate prices for reaching subscribers. For many years, newspapers would account for more than 95 percent of the weight of mail transported by the post office. It was a direct subsidy of the media and it resulted in an explosion in the number of newspapers in the country.

Still, that subsidy benefited all newspapers regardless of their content or ownership. For decades, Congress has paid billions to the CPB and Voice of America. There is a valid debate over whether Voice of America is an outmoded Cold War-era federal program, but at least VOA is an actual federal program that explicitly carries programming for the government.

CPB and NPR are different. In a competitive media market, the government has elected to subsidize a selective media outlet. Moreover, this is not the media organization that many citizens would choose. While tacking aggressively to the left and openly supporting narratives (including some false stories) from Democratic sources, NPR and its allies still expect citizens to subsidize its work. That includes roughly half of the country with viewpoints now effectively banished from its airwaves.

NPR is precisely the type of press outlet that the framers sought to protect through the First Amendment. It is also the very sort of thing that should not be funded as part of a de facto state media. 

While local PBS stations are supported “by listeners like you,” NPR itself continues to maintain that “federal funding is essential” to its work. If NPR is truly only relying on federal funds for only one percent of its budget, why not make a clean break from the public dole? NPR would then have to compete with every other radio and media outlet on equal terms. And it would likely do well in such a competition, given its loyal base and excellent programming.

However, the funding of NPR has always imposed a different cost in terms of constitutional values as a media organization funded in part by taxpayers, including many who view the outlet as extremely biased. Such bias would not make NPR a standout among other news organizations. However, NPR is not like the others. While NPR prides itself on annual pledge drives, conservative taxpayers are not given a choice of whether to fund it. Congress effectively forces them to pledge every year, and they do not even get a tote bag in return.

This debate over the state-funding of NPR has developed an added concern recently due changes in the media. There is a shift in recent years toward advocacy journalism as leading figures denounce the very concept of “objectivity” in the media.

Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor at the Associated Press, declared “It’s objective by whose standard? …That standard seems to be white, educated, and fairly wealthy.”

Ironically, that happens to be the main demographic of the NPR audience. According to surveys, that also includes a largely liberal audience and less racially diverse than…wait for it…Fox News.

NPR has been on the forefront of the advocacy journalism debate. Indeed, it has at times seemed to move toward dispensing with the journalism part altogether. NPR announced that reporters could participate in activities that advocate for “freedom and dignity of human beings” on social media and in real life. Reporters just need approval over what are deemed freedom or dignity enhancing causes. Presumably, that does not include pro-life or gun rights rallies.

While NPR is not alone in moving toward an advocacy model, it certainly makes the state-funding of NPR more and more problematic. Criticism of the obvious bias has not deterred NPR, which has doubled down on its exclusion of conservative voices. Berliner noted that NPR’s Washington headquarters has 87 registered Democrats among its editors and zero Republicans.

That includes its Chief Executive Officer Katherine Maher. After years of criticism over his political bias, the search for a new CEO was viewed as an opportunity to select someone without such partisan baggage. Instead, it selected Maher, who has been criticized for controversial postings on subjects ranging from looters to Trump. Those now-deleted postings included a 2018 declaration that “Donald Trump is a racist” and a variety of political commentary. 

Maher lashed out at Berliner, calling his criticism and call for greater diversity in the newsroom “profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.” 

That one-sided division of the editors is increasingly reflected in its audience. Berliner noted that  in 2011, 26 percent of the audience was still conservative. Now that is down to just 11 percent. At some point, that percentage is likely to reflect mere momentary dial confusion as NPR chases away its last conservative listeners. In the meantime, its audience is now approaching an estimated 70 percent liberal listeners, but it still expects 100 percent of taxpayers to fund its programming and bias. 

The market tends to favor those products and programming that the public wants. If the demand for NPR is insufficient to support its budget, then Congress should not make up the shortfall and prop up the programming. If it is sufficient, then there is no need for the subsidy.

This debate should not turn on whether you agree with the slant of NPR programming. NPR clearly wants to maintain a liberal advocacy in its programming and it has every right to do so. It does not have a right to federal funding. 

Jonathan Turley is the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at the George Washington University Law School.

Samantha Parker

By Samantha Parker

Samantha is a seasoned journalist with a passion for uncovering the truth behind the headlines. With years of experience in investigative reporting, she has covered a wide range of topics including politics, crime, and entertainment. Her in-depth analysis and commitment to factual accuracy make her a respected voice in the field of journalism.

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2 thoughts on “Why Should NPR Count on Listeners Instead of Taxpayers Like You?”
  1. As a long-time listener, I believe NPR should prioritize listeners’ support over relying on taxpayers. The controversy over political bias raises important questions about funding sources and media independence. Public support should be diverse and not heavily reliant on government subsidies.

  2. Why is NPR still receiving public funding when its audience has been declining and there are budget deficits to address?

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