On Tuesday, conservatives got one more reason to get riled up about defunding NPR. Dubious prankster James O'Keefe's "sting" video caught an NPR executive calling the Tea Party "scary" and "racist," resulting in the resignation of NPR's CEO and a lost job opportunity for the offending executive, Ron Schiller. As talking heads clamored to reignite the public funding issue, a recently introduced bill to defund NPR became more probable. But stripping the organization of government funding has proven a more difficult task in the past than conservatives will admit.
After last year's controversial Juan Williams firing, Republicans had populist fervor (in the form of their "YouCut" gimmick) on their side when attempting to pass a bill in Congress that would defund the news organization. It was defeated by House Democrats, who painted the move as "cynical and politically motivated," the New York Times noted. The issue, aside from a few sideswipes by budget hawks, appeared to die down as 2011 approached.
At the time of the bill's defeat, many pundits observed that the government really wasn't providing that much funding to NPR. The news organization's annual budget is $161.8 million, with only 2 percent of the budget coming from Congress-derived funds (excluding member stations). This is one of the reasons why Ron Schiller, the offending outgoing NPR exec starring in the O'Keefe prank, agreed that NPR could live without public funding.
As David Weigel has noted, the backers of the latest bill designed to strip NPR of public funds appear to avoid some of the "culture wars" rhetoric that eventually doomed the passage of the previous incarnation of the legislation. House Majority Speaker Eric Cantor articulated the new sentiment in a release: "At a time when our government borrows 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we must find ways to cut spending and live within our means. This video clearly highlights the fact that public broadcasting doesn’t need taxpayer funding to thrive."
Senator DeMint, one of the sponsors of the bill, described it in a similar manner. "Americans struggling to make ends meet shouldn't be forced to fund public broadcasting when there are already thousands of choices for educational and entertainment programming on the television, radio and web," he said.
Commentators from both sides seem to agree. "NPR: Don't fight defunding...It may be painful in the short run. But in the long run you'll be a better organization, and you won't have to worry about pleasing politicians," wrote Michael Barone in the conservative Washington Examiner. At the other end of the spectrum, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan concurred. "It's not worth it. As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government, it will be forced to appease and cater to Congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war," he wrote.
Fair enough. But pro-NPR types might note that if Congress looks to strip public funding, it won't hurt national NPR and PBS organizations as much as local stations who get subsidies to purchase the programming. "This bill isn't about a budget deficit; it's yet another political witch hunt aimed at silencing serious journalism and quality programming," said Craig Aaron, managing director of the Free Press Action Fund to National Journal before the O'Keefe incident.