It seems like just when things couldn't get stickier for public broadcasting in America, something else happens to make you question whether there's any "PR" left in "NPR."
Last year the public radio news organization fired news analyst Juan Williams over comments he made on a Fox News program (where he was also a contributor) about being nervous around Muslims.
This perceived PC slight saw Williams immediately embraced by ultraconservatives, and calls to cut public media funding ensued. Now the same outfit that brought down community organizing group ACORN (another thorn in conservatives' sides) is responsible for a hidden-camera video that caught a now-former NPR executive labeling the tea party movement as racist. Another video depicts an undercover operative posing as a member of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood trying to give NPR a $5 million donation.
"Cut them off" has become a rallying cry in the reactionary world of tea party politics - "them" being NPR and its television cousin, PBS, both of which receive a chunk of funds from the federally funded nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Maybe the far-right feels this is giving the "gotcha" media, to use Sarah Palin's term, a taste of their own medicine - but it doesn't hold water. Outlets such as NPR and PBS have long been demonized as mouthpieces of the left, but that label carries no more validity than does a media executive who is outside the news gathering process calling tea party members racists.
Programs like PBS' "NewsHour" or NPR's "All Things Considered" sound positively dry in comparison with the screaming antics of cable television news, but they consistently present the facts without spin - they just don't get credit for it because their critics feel any lack of the sky-is-falling, "buy-gold-now" spin that they like to see indicates a liberal slant. The Fox News slogan "we report, you decide" would be more at home with these more austere public media programs - but they're using their resources to provide news, not flashy graphics and slogans.
In January of this year, the Valley's public TV station, KAET (Channel 8) celebrated its 50th year of broadcasting. A Tribune feature story from Jan. 30 looking back at that wealth of history shows the impact such an institution can have on our own community. Public broadcasting isn't something that should be de-funded lightly. Beyond news and analysis, it provides educational content and thoughtful discussion to those in the community who cannot afford expensive premium cable or satellite services, and it's an avenue of exposure to the arts when much of that cultural content has been stripped from public schools. It is, in fact, a powerful teaching tool for educators as well.
In other countries, citizens have no choice but to support public media. Not only is Great Britain's BBC government-funded, but each citizen is charged a license fee, or tax, for its use - whether or not they own a television or radio or a computer with an Internet connection. When British sitcom stars come to the U.S. to make pledge drive appearances on PBS stations, they remark on the wonder of our system, which gives supporters a voice to directly influence the kinds of programming they receive.
To eliminate all that in a fit of pique after sweeping November's elections would be a serious misstep by Republicans. Public broadcasting supporters who may not vote with their wallets when pledge drives come calling may certainly vote in elections two years from now, when the quality of their lives has been further degraded by the loss of programs that teach and inspire them and their children to strive for great things. The supporters of public media know how to organize using powerful social networking tools - tools that helped them get a president elected in 2008.
In the U.S., private funding for these outlets far outstrips public handouts. Maybe that means that some form of public media can stand completely on its own, and in this economy it's certainly appropriate to explore that possibility. We can have those conversations, but not if it becomes just another political football. If that happens, everyone immediately loses.