Thursday, March 10, 2011

Schiller case shows fed media funding problem

The back-to-back resignations this week of two top National Public Radio executives are dramatic proof that federal funding is unhealthy for public broadcasters because it persistently puts them in the crossfire of national politics.

NPR boss Vivian Schiller reportedly was
forced out of her position yesterday after Ron Schiller (no relation), the network’s fund-raising chief, was caught in an embarrassing sting video denouncing Tea Party members as racists and “gun-toting” Christian fundamentalists who had “hijacked” the Republican Party.

The tape also shows Mr. Schiller – who was hired by Ms. Schiller – saying that NPR would be “better off in the long run” without federal funding. This statement was perhaps the most unsettling of all to the public broadcasting community, because Republicans in the House are trying to kill some $400 million in annual appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which flows federal support to NPR and the Public Broadcasting System.

But Mr. Schiller is right. Public broadcasters would be better off without federal funding after twisting in the political crosswinds for many of the last 40 years.

Richard M. Nixon challenged what he viewed as the liberal slant of the public media, Ronald W. Reagan slashed funding for public broadcasting and George W. Bush installed a number of highly politicized executives at CPB in yet another effort to combat what was regarded as liberal bias on the public airwaves. Liberal lawmakers, for their part, spanked the corporation in the 1970s for a lack of programming for racial and ethnic minorities and for employing only two non-white individuals among its top 29 managers.

Caught in this seldom-abating maelstrom, journalists and managers at the public media often are forced to second-guess themselves almost as much as they are second-guessed by their critics.

Had Ms. Schiller worked for a media company that was not supported by federal funding, she might or might not have been able to survive this week's kerfuffle or the firing via mobile phone last year of commentator Juan Williams after he made controversial comments about Muslims on Fox News.

Ms. Schiller's rapid ouster over Mr. Schiller's intemperate remarks – even though she evidently was as surprised to learn of them as the rest of us – suggests that Ms. Schiller was removed not for any direct misfeasance on her part but, rather, in hopes of placating the political powers who control the purse strings for NPR and PBS.

Although there may be more to the story than we know today, the irresistible conclusion from the available facts is that Ms. Schiller and her colleagues operate in an environment that forces them to tread a treacherous and uncertain path between journalistic fearlessness and political correctness – a pair of opposing objectives that are as hopelessly incompatible as they can be.

Fortunately, as discussed previously here, there is a way out: Public broadcasters can tell the feds to get lost.

Thanks to nearly $9 billion of sometimes-grudging federal support since 1969, public radio and television have become mature, powerful and self-sustaining businesses that derive only 15% of their funding from Uncle Sam. With some belt tightening and a few more pledge drives, most public broadcasters can carry on without federal funding.

They should get off the federal dole, too, because there is no logical or ethical reason for the government to continue funding public broadcasting at a time that health, education, welfare and job-generating programs are on the chopping block.

Federal funding has created a healthier and more powerful public broadcasting infrastructure than the original founders could have hoped. Now, it’s time for public broadcasters to claim their rightful independence. They
– and viewers and listeners like us will be glad they did.

3 Comments:

Blogger Len said...

Amen. Newspapers have had to trim in expenses by more than 15% and survived if not prospered. From a journalistic standpoint, NPR has a lot more to gain than lose from cutting the cord. I hope dedicated listeners will join me in stepping up supprt to make up the lost revenue.

6:07 PM  
Blogger path4play said...

Much more than 15% and not so sure about prospered

6:21 PM  
Blogger Syed said...

@Len: Can you please explain what you mean by "prospered"?

8:01 AM  

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