GOP goes after NPR, Dems warm up Big Bird for bout
When Republican lawmakers moved their campaign to “defund NPR” from the court of public opinion to the halls of Congress on Nov. 18, their opening salvo was aimed squarely at the radio news organization based inside the Beltway.
Leading advocates of the cutbacks want to track and block the flow of federal aid from CPB, through public radio stations, to NPR.
For now, their rhetoric is aimed at NPR, not the bigger target of CPB and its aid to public TV, and derives strength from outrage over the radio network’s dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams.
By sidestepping a head-on conflict with public TV and its defenders led by much-loved Sesame Street characters, House Republican leaders are writing a new playbook for the renewed political attack on public broadcasting.
Fifteen years ago, the “Big Bird defense” rescued CPB funding by a 2-to-1 House majority during Newt Gingrich’s reign as House speaker (Current, June 27, 1995). “It was Big Bird that killed us,” former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) acknowledged to Fox News last month.
The Nov. 18 vote on a bill by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) to cut aid to public radio was also a win for supporters of public broadcasting, though with a smaller margin, 239-171. However, future votes, after the new Congress is seated in January, will be affected by the Republicans’ 63-vote gain in November’s midterm election.
Feeling heat from the Juan Williams issue, the CPB Board took pains to separate itself from NPR and its President Vivian Schiller. “The actions of no single institutional leader should put in jeopardy the future of public media,” the board said in a unanimous resolution Nov. 17.
Schiller, who has taken the brunt of criticism over Williams’s dismissal, chose to travel the high road in her speech about public radio journalism in the annual Loper Lecture on Public Service Journalism at the University of Southern California, Nov. 18 (text and video).
What just happened?
The Nov. 18 House action was a procedural vote with strategic consequences, not a formal expression for or against H.R. 6417. Lamborn’s bill would specifically prohibit all federal funding of NPR; the vote determined what the lawmakers would be able to debate.
If the majority had said “nay,” control of discussion would have shifted from the Democratic majority to the GOP minority, which would have requested a floor vote on Lamborn’s bill after an hour’s debate. That didn’t happen: The majority voted yea along party lines.
The Association for Public Television Stations cautioned in a statement: “We cannot assume that any particular Members’ vote was a reflection of their support for public broadcasting.”
Based on the congressional debate so far, citizens could easily be confused about how much federal spending is at stake when they hear the arguments of advocates and opponents of cutbacks.
Cutting aid to NPR itself would be a measly start, as the network pointed out. The organization received only $1.6 million in fiscal 2009 and $2.5 million in fiscal 2010 in direct grants from CPB or federal agencies, according to an NPR spokesperson last week. Both sums are less than 2 percent of the year’s operating budget.
During the floor debate, GOP members focused like a laser on National Public Radio. “NPR stations ... use these taxpayer dollars on licensing fees for NPR programming, which are then funneled back to NPR headquarters here in Washington,” Lamborn said.
Democrats meanwhile construed the issue as a broader threat to public broadcasting and its radio and TV stations spread throughout most of the country’s congressional districts, along with favorite offerings such as Sesame Street (putting Big Bird on alert) and Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour.
“National public broadcasting is one of the few areas where the American people can actually get balanced information,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) He wouldn’t comment on the NPR-Williams issue during the debate except to say, “There are others that have talked about it endlessly. The head of NPR indicated she would have handled it differently.”
Dems hammered home the importance of local stations, which Republicans were not inclined to mention. “Fundamentally, public broadcasting is rooted in local communities,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a longtime pubcasting supporter. “Stations are locally licensed and governed, locally programmed and locally staffed.”
GAO probe sought
Further emphasizing the NPR issue on the day of the House vote, two senior Republicans asked the GAO to examine NPR funding: Texas Reps. Joe Barton, ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Michael Burgess, ranking member of its subcommittee on oversight and investigations (tinyurl.com/LetterToGAO).
“Our concern,” they wrote, “is that the use of appropriated taxpayer dollars for the production of content could inappropriately involve the government in the promulgation of particular viewpoints and the silencing of others, especially since many taxpayers may not share the editorial views of NPR.”
Charles Young, spokesman for GAO, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative and auditing agency, told Current that the office is scheduling meetings with the lawmakers’ staffs to begin work on its report. “We will be making decisions about the parameters of the work after we reach agreement with the requesters on its scope and focus,” he said. After the GAO releases a report, he said, it’s up to Congress or the appropriate agencies to determine actions to take.
Current asked a GOP spokesperson for the Energy and Commerce Committee whether public television soon could figure into congressional discussions. The GAO investigation “is the first step,” the spokesperson said, requiring anonymity and declining further comment.
NPR told Current in a statement: “While we have not heard from the GAO, we have read the publicly posted request for an inquiry and the related press release. We will respond to any questions or requests in a timely manner.”
CPB waded into the mire, rebuking NPR in a resolution Nov. 16 and revising its wording the next day to point its criticism more directly at NPR’s Schiller.
The board expressed its “deep concerns about the consequences of NPR’s decisions” in the handling of Williams’s dismissal in the original resolution. In the “highly interdependent” public television and radio systems, the board said, the “actions of one public media stakeholder can affect the welfare of the others and the public media system as a whole.”
The board’s Nov. 17 statement dropped that last sentence and inserted: “The actions of no single institutional leader should put in jeopardy the future of public media.”
The next day, the Daily Beast published an interview by Washington Bureau Chief Howard Kurtz with Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who turned up the already-heated rhetoric.
“They are, of course, Nazis,” Ailes said, referring to NPR’s leaders and their decision to dismiss Williams, a news analyst who had been under contract with both NPR and Fox. “They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view. They don’t feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda. They are basically Air America with government funding to keep them alive.”
Ailes later apologized to the Anti-Defamation League, explaining that he ad-libbed a bad choice of words. “I was angry at the time because of NPR’s willingness to censor Juan Williams for not being liberal enough,” he said in a letter to ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. Ailes added that it would have “worked better” to say, “nasty, inflexible bigot.”
To fight back
The strategy for public broadcasting’s advocacy response is a work in progress, but NPR’s Dana Davis Rehm described deliberations over it as collegial: “We are working very closely with our colleagues to determine the best ways to address the challenge to reduce or eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting,” she wrote in an e-mail.
As for decisions about how public radio will enlist its audiences and followers as political supporters, she added: “We appreciate the fact that there are thousands if not millions of listeners in every part of the country who are eager to speak out about what public radio means and the value it delivers everyday.”
In Minnesota, the MPR Advocates Network is preparing to rally its troops. Since its founding as a state group four years ago, it has gathered some 3,000 followers, including residents of 18 states and every congressional district in Minnesota.
Their outreach to legislators on the state and national levels is “wildly effective” said Jeff Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio’s managing director of public advocacy. They simply speak directly to legislators or their aides to describe the important ways that pubradio directly affects their lives.
MPR says the advocates group is independent from the network and receives no government funds. It’s preparing for an e-mail, telephone and letter campaign on Capitol Hill. “Very soon we are going to be asking them to get involved in the fight,” Nelson said. “We need the audience to speak with one voice, at a time that it will have the greatest impact. That big punch needs to happen soon, probably within the next few weeks.”
Public media staffers and allies meeting in Washington, D.C., were eager to fight back through social media. But some participants in the second annual national Public Media Camp, Nov. 20 and 21 at American University, worried that public radio wouldn’t use its online connections to best effect. On hand were social media strategists, technologists, journalists, enthusiasts and academics advancing pubmedia’s digital expansion.
It’s not clear what role, if any, NPR can play in marshalling support through social media networks. Ethics guidelines prohibit NPR’s social media team from enlisting NPR Facebook fans and Twitter followers to the political cause of preserving federal aid, said Andy Carvin, senior social media strategist. But the network’s leadership is reconsidering these rules as part of the broader review of its standards and practices.
Carvin moves between NPR’s newsroom and its digital media division, and, under the current policy, has to follow NPR’s news ethics rules in managing the social media desk. “Everyone realizes we’re sitting on a gold mine of support,” he said told the camp crowd during a Nov. 21 session on how to respond to the political threat.
Carvin and other pubmedia staffers in the session were mindful that asking for political support from people who had signed up to receive news easily could backfire. Few if any Public Media Campers may have remembered how the system took a political drubbing in 1999 for what appeared to be a different blurring of the lines between public service and self-serving politics:Fundraisers for Boston’s WGBH and other stations had swapped donor lists with Democratic groups.
Camp attendees proposed responses that would be less overtly political and divisive.
“You need a grassroots movement catalyzed by the people,” said Peter Corbett, interactive strategist and an organizer of Public Media Camp.
In past campaigns to preserve federal aid, the system has gone to its grassroots for defense. Members of Congress may blast NPR or PBS on Capitol Hill, but they maintain surprisingly friendly and longstanding relationships with the local NPR and PBS stations that provide important services to their constituents — and give candidates free airtime during campaigns.
Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican reelected to her second term in the House, is protesting NPR’s behavior by collecting signatures for a letter demanding that Schiller resign. Yet Lummis has a “good relationship with the statewide public TV network, according to Ruby Calvert, g.m. of Wyoming PBS. “We’ve been friends a long time,” she said. Lummis’s staff worked especially closely with the station on satellite legislation.
Local stations must step up to make the case for preserving federal funds again, said Maxie Jackson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, during the Public Media Camp session. For NPR to take a front-and-center role in the political debate would be “poisonous at this point,” Jackson said, pointing to the damage wrought by the Juan Williams firing and the network’s often-criticized track record in audience and workforce diversity.
“You’ve got to take NPR off the table,” Jackson said.
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Web page posted Nov. 29, 2010
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