The Corner

On De-Funding NPR

I come out against it as a political priority, but not as a policy. From my column:

NPR should be defunded, but not because it’s liberal. If NPR were right-wing (stop laughing!) it’d still be wrong for the federal government to be in the news business or to subsidize one set of views over another. The same goes for PBS. I have no huge problem with funding documentaries about bears and mummies, but state-run television news is an embarrassment in the age of C-SPAN and YouTube.

Heck, it already dropped the word “public” from its name — it’s now just NPR. If it can stop being public in name, it can stop being public in deed.

Still, Republicans would be crazy to make this a priority after the midterm elections. Andrew McCarthy, my friend and National Review colleague, insists that defunding NPR should be a test case about the fiscal seriousness of the coming GOP House majority. He compares NPR funding to a person wildly in debt charging a fancy chandelier to his credit card while defaulting on his mortgage and his kids’ tuition. If we can’t defund NPR, he asks, how are we going to repeal Obamacare?

I take his point, but the analogy is flawed. Take it from a former public television producer: PBS and NPR have spent decades target-hardening their budgetary bunkers. Busting them would take an enormous amount of time and effort, with miniscule reward. Indeed, Democrats would love it if Republicans allowed themselves to be baited into what would essentially be a culture-war fight over public radio (the last “war on Big Bird” was a disaster for the GOP).

Meanwhile, Obamacare’s roots are weak, it’s exposed and unpopular — and it represents a far greater threat to fiscal health. Forget chandeliers; going after NPR now would be like fixing a leaky faucet while your house is on fire. You can get around to that, after you’ve dealt with the crisis at hand.


There’s one point that I think needs clarification: withdrawing federal funds from NPR would not kill NPR. This is a point that NPR deliberately fudges because they understand that “They want to kill NPR!” will motivate their troops more than “They want to take away 2% of our funds!” 

Again, I am for getting rid of taxpayer subsidies for all news. 

What I don’t think makes sense is for the GOP to get into office and make this a loud priority. The return on the political investment will be minimal. Lots of independents and even quite a few conservatives will be turned off by what will ultimately be a culture war fight, not a budgetary one (Let’s face facts: NPR is beloved by liberals first and foremost because it is a cultural institution). Instead, without fanfare or advanced notice the GOP should simply whittle away at public broadcasting subsidies that go to news over time. These cuts shouldn’t be cast as “anti-NPR” but as one small part of a broader program of fiscal responsibility along the lines of British effort currently underway. The GOP  shouldn’t crow “We’ve crushed ‘National Peacenik Radio’” it should be “Hey, it’s tough all over and I don’t see why an otherwise profitable organization should be immune from the painful cuts that are necessary across the board.”

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