NPR Slants 7 to 2 Towards Backers of Federal Funding of Public Broadcasting

On Thursday's All Things Considered, NPR's Jim Zarroli vouched for continuing federal funding of public broadcasting by lining up seven sound bites from three supporters of the medium, versus only two from opponents. The supporters all hyped the dire effects if tax dollars no longer went to public TV and radio. Zarroli also completely avoided any mention of NPR's longstanding reputation for liberal bias.

Host Robert Siegel introduced the correspondent's report by playing up how "Congress gave $430 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Roughly three-quarters went to public TV stations, and a quarter or so to public radio stations. With Republicans again calling for CPB funding to be cut, NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at how that money is spent and what might happen if it's eliminated."

Zaroli picked up where Siegel left off: "Over the years, conservatives have often tried to eliminate money for public broadcasting without succeeding. In 1995, for instance, congressional Republicans tried to zero out CPB funds. Within a few years, CPB's budget was bigger than ever." He continued by introducing his first supporter of public broadcasting: "Pat Butler of the Public Media Association, which lobbies for PBS and public radio, says the odds against public broadcasting are greater this time."

If the name of Butler's organization is unfamiliar, it's because it was only formed on February 15 of this year, as a joint project between his Association of Public Television Stations and NPR itself (the NPR journalist didn't reveal this detail, or the fact that Butler is the former chairman of the Maryland Public Television Foundation). After the lobbyist underlined that "there is a $1.6 trillion federal budget deficit that there wasn't in 1995...and [a] more diverse media universe than there was in 1995," Zaroli continued that "in this climate, the effort to defund public broadcasting is gaining steam, and Butler says people need to understand what's at stake if CPB is cut."

The next five clips cast a pall of doom and gloom if Congress defunded public TV and radio:

BUTLER: The first thing that would happen is that hundreds of local public television and radio stations would go dark almost immediately, and many of the 21,000 jobs that are represented in public broadcasting around the country would just disappear.

ZARROLI: The stations most at risk are small rural outlets, like KPBT in Midland-Odessa, Texas. Daphne Dowdy Jackson is its general manager.

DAPHNE DOWDY JACKSON, KPBT: We're in far West Texas. We vote primarily Republican. This is the home of George and Laura Bush. As a matter of fact, Laura Bush was a founding member of our public television station back in the mid-1980s.

ZARROLI: With just seven employees and no studio of its own, KPBT still produces local programs, like a high school quiz show....KPBT gets more than half its budget from CPB, and Jackson says without federal money, there simply aren't enough local donors to keep the station going.

JACKSON: I hate to say it, but it would probably spell the end, or certainly, serious hurt for my station and for many, many small stations across the country.

ZARROLI: Even stations that survive, Butler says, would suffer without federal money. Emmy Award-winning TV producer David Grubin says CPB funds act as seed money to make documentaries.

DAVID GRUBIN: It gives me the credibility, when I go out to a foundation or a corporation, to say that we're going to be able to get some money from PBS, even though it may not be a lot.

ZARROLI: If smaller stations die off, Butler says, the impact would ripple through the system. PBS and public radio networks make money selling programs to local stations.

BUTLER: Even very large stations, successful programming stations, depend for a great amount of their overall budgets on the programming fees that they receive from smaller stations, and if the smaller stations can't pay the programming fees, then even the larger stations are going to have to retrench considerably.

Zarroli finally got around to playing two sound bites from backers of cutting tax dollars to CPB, but they only lasted 24 seconds, compared to over a minute and a half total for the pro-public broadcasting talking heads:

ZARROLI: Critics scoff at the notion that public broadcasting would collapse without federal support. PBS and public radio, they say, have a loyal, affluent audience that will come to its rescue if funding is cut. Others point out that the media landscape has changed. The Internet gives audiences multiple ways to access national programs, like 'Morning Edition.' Florida Congressman Rich Nugent said on the House floor earlier this month that losing federal funds would force stations to reinvent themselves by becoming more community-oriented.

REPRESENTATIVE RICH NUGENT: Local stations can create their own programs. They can reorganize their financing, so grant money they might use for membership and programming fees can go elsewhere, and can do private fundraising they need for the dues and programming from NPR.

ZARROLI: Even some public broadcasting fans say weaning the system off federal money would reap benefits. Jesse Walker of the libertarian magazine Reason says stations pay a price when they take federal money. For one thing, there's the perennial threat of government interference.

JESSE WALKER, REASON MAGAZINE: I don't think that's good for freedom of speech, and I don't think it's good for broadcasters who want to do their best, and I don't think it serves audiences well.

ZARROLI: Walker says public broadcasting needs to devise a new funding mechanism that will protect its independence, such as a private trust supported by an endowment. It's an idea that gets talked about during each funding crisis.

Though Siegel hinted at the liberal bias angle in his introduction, when he made a vague reference to the Ron Schiller controversy ("NPR recently found itself in the headlines after its chief fundraising executive was caught on tape making controversial remarks"), Zarroli didn't explicitly mention that component to the debate over federal funding at any point during his report.

- Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.