The NPR Model for Public Media – a Path to Pravda?

by Mike Wendy on October 26, 2010

Earlier this month, I wrote about a DC event I attended on “public media” (i.e., PBS, NPR and other government-supported media).  The main idea presented there was that commercial media markets are largely “broken,” and public media outlets should receive greater support not only to “fix” them, but to make Americans “better.”

One of the speakers at the event was Free Press President, Josh Silver.  In teeing up the event, he talked about how important it was for public media outlets to set up appropriate “firewalls” to ensure that government support didn’t effect / sway / bias editorial output.  That it didn’t help foster essentially a government propaganda tool for the state’s use.

I wrote the following, which in light of NPR’s Juan Williams’ dismissal, seems prescient:

When public funding of the media – especially journalism – is mentioned, I want to know what firewalls will be in place to ensure that it will not be tainted by politics or appropriations cycles, or act like Pravda.  It is not enough to say – “Look at NPR, it’s one of the most trusted media sources in America, and they do it.”   Quite frankly, I do not think they do it, with the balance of its reportage being “left-leaning” and overt in its promotion of an ever-enlarging Nanny State to solve all of our needs.  If that’s an example of firewalls working, then any such publicly funded system is in trouble.  NPR’s the ostensible “best in class.”  Imagine the worst?

Best in class, we’re told.  Still, the government-funded operation let its darker, more intolerant side get the best of it last week.  That’s for sure.  But is there something more nefarious at work here, too?  Was the Williams incident a firewall breach?

In “NPR Finally Gets It Man,” the WSJ draws some connection, noting:

It has long been one of the most open secrets in the world of punditry (which needless to say, includes NPR’s “analysts”), that NPR’s progressive political base was unhappy with Mr. Williams’s appearances on Fox as existentially incompatible with their worldview…Anti-Muslim “bigotry,” as we learned in the fight over the Ground Zero mosque, has become the latest progressive weapon for waving their opposition out of a public debate and now, we see, even out of a job.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post paints Williams’ dismissal more benignly, in PC terms:

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality,” Mr. Williams told [Bill] O’Reilly. NPR, alas, has proved his point.

Whatever the real motivation was, Arab-American Emilio Karim Dabul (in “NPR’s Taxpayer-Funded Intolerance”) sees NPR’s liberal astigmatism as clearly damaging to the credibility of the news organization’s central mission, which is to report news as objectively as possible.

He writes:

For many Americans, NPR’s consistent tilt to the left has caused them to reject it as a viable source of news.  NPR often embodies the very things it claims to stand against: unfairness, narrow-mindedness and reactionary policies…We deserve better from a public radio network funded by taxpayer money.

No news gathering organization is perfect.  Though some are calling for the defunding of NPR as fallout from the Williams’ spat, I’m not sure I agree.  That shouldn’t be the cost for the organization’s imperfection.

But, I don’t agree with the Free Press either, which sees the firestorm surrounding the firing as yet another opportunity to expand the reach of publicly supported media.

Says the activist group:

Public media like NPR play a crucial role in America, providing original, in-depth journalism and educational programming. With commercial newspapers, radio and television stations cutting staff and cutting back on original reporting, the need for a robust public media system has never been greater. (emphasis added)

Groups like the FP aren’t offended by the intolerant and biased NPR because they do not see a problem.  We all should be so enlightened.  To get there, they want public media to supplant commercial markets, which they see as a tool of “evil” corporate America.  In their view, government support of the media is the only way to move the masses toward utopia.  Or, as their founder, Robert McChesney, once remarked:

Our job is to make media reform part of our broader struggle for democracy, social justice, and, dare we say it, socialism. It is impossible to conceive of a better world with a media system that remains under the thumb of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, under the thumb of the owning class.

I’d rather the “subversion” of business than that of government any day.

But here’s the real problem.  Like the spontaneous order seen in free markets, journalism plays naturally, effortlessly to its favorites – i.e., Left-oriented coverage that ostensibly “helps the little guy.”   In this world, corporations serve as useful foils to the “white knights” (oftentimes costumed as government workers), who ride in at the last possible moment to save Everyman.

Capitalism = evil.  Government = good.

Returning to journalistic firewalls, the Williams’ event is the easy stuff.  Heck, even the Post bemoaned what occurred.  NPR got busted red-handed.  However, it’s the spontaneous order of the press – it’s “hidden” bias – that should most concern us.  How do you firewall that?

You can’t.

Adding to this, imagine a system – as advocated by the Free Press – where public media becomes an even greater part of America’s media landscape.  Not only is a government-engorged public media system susceptible to the corruptibility of appropriations cycles, Congressional fiefdoms, and “strings” (the exact opposite of firewalls), it gets amped to the Left by journalism’s institutional, anti-liberty bias.

The result?  Here’s your “digital broccoli”:  Roe v. Wade = impeccable and untouchable decision.  Owning guns = always bad because the government can protect you better.  Government programs to redistribute your wealth = always good, moral and necessary.  First Amendment protection for government provided talking points = always offered; “Juan Williams treatment” for all others who stray from the approved messaging.

Get the picture?

NPR last week let slip the man behind the curtain.  It was ugly.  A system built on the NPR model, however, would devastate our liberties.  And that is far worse than ugly – it is Pravda.

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