GOP focuses on NPR's subsidies, not its politics

In a little-noticed portion of the National Public Radio undercover video, now-departed NPR executive Ron Schiller discussed the taxpayer-subsidized network's efforts to limit the damage from the firing of commentator Juan Williams. At the time, October 2010, some Republicans were expressing outrage over NPR's decision to dump Williams for comments about Muslims made on Fox News. Listening to the complaints, NPR executives wondered: Are those conservatives just posturing — playing to their base — or do they really believe NPR is biased? NPR decided to do a little field research. “I asked one of my very conservative friends who lives in Washington if they would give a dinner of very conservative people in government,” Schiller said at the Feb. 22 lunch secretly recorded by conservative activist James O'Keefe. “The purpose of the dinner was to ask them if they really believed that NPR had a liberal bias or not. Is this just something that conservatives say to each other, or is this in fact true?”

The dinner was arranged, and 10 conservatives attended, along with Ron Schiller and NPR head Vivian Schiller. (The two are not related.) The results of the evening, Ron Schiller said, were “very amusing.”

“We began with everyone around the table taking this point of view that of course NPR is liberal, or perceived as liberal … and that there is a reason for that perception,” Schiller recounted. “And then, about half an hour into the dinner, one of the people said, 'Well, of course I listen to NPR every day because it's the only place I can get intelligent reporting. But it's still liberal.' And then the next person said, 'Well, of course I listen to it every day.' By the time we finished the dinner, every person around the room admitted that they listened to it every day.”

Assume for a moment that Schiller's description of the dinner conversation is both accurate and complete. (I haven't yet spoken to anyone who was actually there, and NPR did not answer a request for details.) The lesson the NPR executives took from the dinner seems to be that because some Republicans listen to NPR — and they do — then they should support federal funding for the network. “It's politically advantageous to attack NPR and to paint it as liberal, even if in fact [you] listen to it and don't really think that it's all that liberal,” Schiller said on the video.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, a conservative Republican from Colorado, is leading the fight in the House to defund NPR. I asked whether Lamborn had been invited to the Schiller dinner. “No,” he laughed. (He hadn't known about it until I told him.) But he was struck by the notion that anyone who listens to NPR must also support federal subsidies for NPR.

“It's not an issue of whether they have quality programming or whether they have an ideological bias,” Lamborn says. “Those are valid questions, but the issue is whether we can afford something that's no longer essential.” Lamborn has no desire to see NPR disappear; he believes it can thrive on its corporate, foundation, and private support, without federal dollars.

It's not hard to understand. People watch and enjoy ESPN but don't believe it should be federally subsidized. They watch the History Channel, the Food Channel, the news channels, the old movie channels — all without believing those should be federally subsidized. Why shouldn't they feel the same way about NPR?

Even though much coverage of the Schiller sting video has focused on bias — in the video Schiller refers to Tea Partiers as “xenophobic” and “seriously racist, racist people” — Lamborn and other Republicans are trying to keep the emphasis on federal funding. In the video, Schiller said NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.” That, to Lamborn, is the heart of the matter; he wants to debate whether the government should fund a news agency, especially in a time of runaway deficits. What he's trying to avoid is “an ideological battle where people take sides.”

Of course, that is exactly the situation some congressional NPR defenders want to create. “They're trying to make this, including my involvement in it, into an ideological jihad of some kind,” says Lamborn. “If we keep it on fiscal issues, we can make more progress.”

It's not clear whether Lamborn can prevail. But it is becoming clear that NPR doesn't fully understand its adversaries on Capitol Hill.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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