Thursday, March 10, 2011

Free advice to NPR

I'm a listener of National Public Radio going way, way back. Its reporters are smart, its production values clean and straightforward.

It pains me to see it going through its current troubles, but there's a simple solution -- get rid of its federal government funding and go it alone.

It receives no direct federal funding, but it does get some federal grants that represent about 10 percent of its annual budget. It benefits indirectly through other government sources that help fund independent public radio stations around the country that pay fees to NPR for its services. The problem for NPR really comes down to its direct federal subsidy.

It ought to dump it.

No news organization can claim to be entirely free from outside influence. Newspapers, TV stations, magazines and web sites can't survive without either advertising or big donations from rich people or corporations. All of these sources of income would like to have some influence on the product, and journalists go to great lengths to avoid that kind of influence. It's been going on for a long time.

In the case of National Public Radio, however, one of the sources of income is the American taxpayer, coming through the filter of the Washington political machine. It's not worth it. Why NPR would want to put up with that is beyond me.

Politicians will always target news organizations they don't like for whatever reason. Meanwhile, Americans have long and rightfully rejected the British model that charges an annual tax for each television owned by its citizens to fund the BBC. By accepting even a small amount of tax money, NPR opens itself to criticism that it doesn't need. It should simply go to a 100 percent private fund-raising formula and tell Congress to take a flying leap.

Privately funded journalism isn't perfect -- it's more like Churchill's description of democracy: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."