House Republicans appear determined to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting — especially for National Public Radio. Opponents of government assistance argue that tax dollars should not be used to help support news gathering — or the rest of what is broadcast on public television and radio — and that NPR in particular is too tendentious and liberal. Recent management mistakes at NPR, including offensive partisan remarks by its now-former chief fundraiser, have fueled the debate. The House has voted to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from spending bills it sent to the Senate, and it voted Thursday to prohibit public radio stations from using federal money to pay dues to NPR for its news and other programs. The fate of those actions in the Democratic-controlled Senate is uncertain.
We are two former newspaper editors who aren’t comfortable advising Congress on how to vote on this or any other subject. But we are concerned that, in the heat of the debate, members of Congress may not realize the changing role that public radio stations, working with NPR, play in informing citizens in their communities.
We are not referring primarily to NPR’s increasingly extensive news coverage of the nation and the world at a time when most commercial news media, including television networks and major metropolitan newspapers, have cut back dramatically on their staffs and coverage. NPR has built an ever-larger audience of more than 30 million listeners each week on public radio stations throughout the country for its outstanding national and international reporting.
But equally important to us is local news coverage, which has been even more severely weakened by shrunken reporting staffs and ambitions at newspapers and commercial stations in too many cities and towns. We have long believed that Americans benefit when powerful institutions and important issues in their lives are scrutinized by good reporters on their behalf. Yet this kind of ambitious local news coverage by commercial media has diminished in community after community in recent years.
Recognizing that, NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the government-created nonprofit institution that distributes federal dollars to public television and radio stations — have begun helping public radio stations do a better job of news reporting in their communities. CPB is funding Local Journalism Centers that will enable dozens of public radio and television stations to work together in seven regions of the country to produce in-depth coverage of such subjects as education and the impact of the Gulf oil spill in southern states and coastal cities, economic change in the upper Midwest and Upstate New York, health care in central Florida, the environment in the Pacific Northwest, immigration and cultural change in southwestern cities, and evolving agribusiness in Great Plains communities.
NPR is working with local member stations on similar initiatives, including investigative reporting, as well as digital content sharing and Web site development that help stations stretch their limited resources. NPR also intends to begin a multiyear experimental partnership with selected member stations to cover the impact of state government actions in each of the 50 states, after many newspapers cut or closed their state capital news bureaus. Some individual stations are collaborating with nearby stations and new nonprofit news organizations to provide more local news to listeners.
Much of this is overdue. When Congress created the CPB four decades ago, public broadcasting was mandated to keep communities informed, but commitments to local news varied widely. The best stations, among them WNYC in New York, Minnesota Public Radio and Oregon Public Broadcasting, pursued their local obligations aggressively and creatively, but too many public stations covered little or no local news. The more than 800 NPR member stations have only about 900 local news reporters scattered among them, and, until recently, the CPB offered insufficient encouragement and assistance to stations for local news. One-quarter of CPB’s annual appropriation from Congress ($430 million this fiscal year) goes to public radio stations, contributing an average of 10 to 15 percent of their budgets (less for bigger stations and more for smaller ones).
The public broadcasting community has appeared flustered by the ferocity of its critics’ attacks, some of which are ideologically motivated. But most members of Congress are sent to Washington by communities with NPR member stations, which could do a better job of selling their increasingly vital role in news reporting. Consumers of public broadcasting could raise their voices, too. Public broadcasting should be able to accept and manage a fair share of federal budget cuts, but should it be abandoned?
Leonard Downie Jr. is a professor of journalism at Arizona State University and vice president at large of The Washington Post. Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor at The Post. They are co-authors of “The News About The News: American Journalism in Peril.”