Liberals tend to prefer Thomas Jefferson’s vision of religious liberty to the one actually enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, so here’s one for them, from his bill for religious freedom in Virginia: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” NPR has fired Juan Williams for the sin of confessing that he sometimes feels fear when he sees a Muslim in obvious religious garb seated near him on an airplane. Williams made his confession on Fox News, a private network. Those who find the opinions expressed on Fox News abhorrent are free to turn it off, depriving it of viewers and transitively of ad dollars. But those of us who believe that NPR propagates a worldview we do not share, and that it furthermore has treated Williams abhorrently, are nevertheless compelled to keep on providing 16 percent of its member stations’ operating revenue.
Petty, as tyrannies go. But we’re with Jefferson on this one: The network formerly known as National Public Radio has dropped the “Public” from its name, and it is past time that Congress dropped the public from its funding. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created in an era when Americans had only a handful of radio stations, three television stations, a few magazines, and one or two newspapers to choose from. Today we live in an age of surplus media: thousands of television channels, C-SPAN (the privately run organization that does a better job of what it is public broadcasting is supposed to be doing), YouTube, satellite radio, podcasts, blogs, and a smorgasboard of web offerings ranging from dizzying aggregators to nonprofit investigative news sites — is there a commercial market that needs subsidies less?
NPR’s supporters argue that what it provides is not “media,” but news and journalism that consumers would otherwise be unable to find anywhere. NPR itself does not receive any direct federal funding, but its supporters howl whenever Republicans try to defund the CPB, because 40 percent of NPR’s revenues come from station programming fees, and many of its member stations, especially in rural areas, are dependent on CPB largesse. In this sense, NPR is sort of like Amtrak: Self-sufficient in urban areas where it has lots of listeners but dependent on taxpayer subsidies to broadcast its programming nationwide.
If listeners in Dubuque want NPR content, let them pay for it. We are tired of kicking in contributions so that coastal liberalism may find an audience in Ogallala. NPR offers many fine programs, but it is towering arrogance to imply, as some supporters of public funding do, that residents of Big Sky would be left stranded on an island of ignorance if forced to do without Morning Edition. If it’s really that important to them, they can increase their yearly contributions to Yellowstone Public Radio. If not, why should taxpayers in other parts of the country make up the shortfall?
This isn’t a new question, but the network’s treatment of Juan Williams has reminded us that it hasn’t gone away, and shouldn’t. The context of Williams’s remarks on the Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor makes clear that he wasn’t saying that fear of all or even of conspicuously dressed Muslims was justified, only that he occasionally felt it. Williams said that people should resist letting these feelings turn us against all Muslims, because “if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals — very obnoxious — you don’t say first and foremost, ‘We got a problem with Christians.’ That’s crazy.” (Never mind that McVeigh was an avowed agnostic who declared that “science is my religion”; the point stands.)
NPR has refused to supply a compelling explanation for why these remarks constitute a firing offense. NPR president Vivian Schiller said only (and later apologized for saying) that Williams should have kept these kinds of sentiments between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” So we are left to guess. It has not escaped our notice that the left-wing Media Matters for America has for a long time been pressuring NPR to forbid its correspondents to appear on Fox News, nor that the same donor — one George Soros — just gave exceedingly large donations to both Media Matters and NPR. Hmm.
If NPR wants to behave like every other liberal news organization, complete with a slavish obeisance to left-wing pressure groups, fine. Those organizations don’t rely on taxpayer funding, and neither should NPR.