NPR has had many political challenges since its government funding allowed it become branded as the main source of radio news for upper-income liberals. Just last year, Mitt Romney declared he would end federal funding for public broadcasting. But now it faces the suggestion from its former chief executive officer that NPR would be better off without the government subsidy it’s gotten since the 1970s.
Ken Stern, who was NPR’s chief operating officer before becoming its CEO in 2006, has said that even though the network now gets “less than 10 percent of its funding” from government, that money comes at an “enormous cost in terms of credibility, focus, and the efforts they have to do to maintain that support.”
Stern told Newsmax TV this week that “with that relatively modest funding, they’d be smart to actually think carefully about going on their own with corporate, individual, institutional, and foundation support . . . There are actually a group of charities that do pretty well on their own.”
Mr. Stern, the author of a new book on charitable giving, is onto something. NPR has convinced a large chunk of red America that its reports are hopelessly biased or elitist, or both. In early 2011, even before the James O’Keefe scandal in which the young videographer captured NPR’s director of development engaged in stereotypical bashing of conservatives and questionable comments about Jewish-owned media, the network was in trouble. It surived a House vote to defund it by only 228 to 192.
One of the leading congressional complaints about NPR is its stultifying political correctness. In 2009, NPR commentator Juan Williams commented on Fox News that the sight of people traditionally Muslim garb on an airplane made him nervous, admitting such stereotyping was wrong, but claiming that the issue had to be acknowledged. NPR’s board of directors issued a 2010 report on Williams’s firing, concluding that the matter was mishandled and calling for new personnel procedures. The network’s senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, carried out the firing and was later forced to resign. The NPR board also recommended that CEO Vivian Schiller lose her bonus for 2010 because of her role in the affair. (Schiller infamously said that Williams’s comments suggested that he should see a psychiatrist.) After the O’Keefe scandal broke in early 2011, Schiller was asked to leave by the board.
NPR critics say the network’s liberalism has been a bit muted of late, but is still very much present. Juan Williams says it remains “a very ingrown, incestuous culture” while former NPR board member Vin Weber, a GOP congressman in the 1980s, told me in 2011 that the network remains “hopelessly biased on at least two issues — their coverage of the economy and Israel’s role in the Middle East. They humored my objections but would never make any substantive changes.”
Now the call for NPR to change its culture has come from a former insider within its ranks. I doubt that Republicans are up for another tilting-at-windmills attack on NPR, but at least the message that the network’s federal funding has greater costs than one might think is coming from a source that insiders will find harder to dismiss.