I once attended a birthday party for someone I know who has hundreds of friends -- and an operatic personality that frequently tests their loyalty. One guest began his toast to the honoree, "I love him, even though I know what he's like."
That pretty much sums up my feelings about public broadcasting, especially NPR. I love NPR news, even with its occasional flights into cultural esoterica and political correctness. It's worth it for the comprehensive coverage of serious issues and international events -- the kind of stuff the rest of the media has more or less abandoned. If you don't believe me, listen to Melissa Block's stirring reportage on the 2008 earthquake in China. Nobody does it better.
It is precisely because I love NPR that I think the time has come to end federal funding for the radio network and other public broadcasting. Radio and TV broadcasting is not a high national priority in an age of multiple media options and fiscal difficulty, so I believed NPR's subsidy was expendable even before fundraiser Ron Schiller revealed himself to be a biased blowhard on hidden camera. The irony was almost too much to bear: Here's a guy expounding on the stupidity of America's "uneducated" masses even though he lacked the wit to do a basic background check before breaking bread with a couple of purported Middle Eastern donors.
Still, those of us who believe that federal funding undermines NPR's independence owe Schiller a debt of gratitude for admitting that NPR "would be better off in the long run without federal funding." This was totally off-message --and true.
Many local NPR stations would wither and die without federal help, but the news network itself and its major-city affiliates could probably survive on corporate sponsorship, foundation grants and "the support of listeners like you." Indeed, as Jeff Jarvis explains, the stations have become a bit of an economic millstone around NPR's neck anyway, now that NPR can reach the world via the Internet.
Meanwhile, here's the upside: NPR without federal funding could provide news and commentary as it -- not Congress -- sees fit, accountable only to its audience and private-sector funders. To be sure, the network, unencumbered by the need to pay at least lip service to the concerns of Capitol Hill conservatives, might gravitate, in style and substance, toward the ideological preferences of its (mostly, but not exclusively) liberal listener base.
But even after the Schiller debacle, and the Juan Williams fiasco, I have enough respect for the institution and its professionalism to think otherwise -- that NPR would use financial independence to strengthen its brand as a serious news organization with a liberal accent, not a left-wing bias. Fragmented and polarized as the media market may be, there would still be an audience for what NPR, at its best, offers.
It's time to end NPR's career as a political football. I love NPR, and, as the saying goes, if you love something, set it free.