The reactionaries of the far-right are clawing and scratching at their latest red meat: National Public Radio's decision to fire Juan Williams for comments he made about Muslims on Fox News Channel.
It's hard to work up too much sympathy for Williams -- a once esteemed journalist who has repeatedly embarrassed himself in recent years as a soloist in Bill O'Reilly's amen chorus. He was warned multiple times by NPR about providing commentary on Fox News that violated his employment contract. And his reward for the noxious comments that cost him one job was a new $2 million contract from Fox, announced Thursday.
But that hasn't stopped Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin, Andrew Breitbart and, of course, O'Reilly from seizing on this contretemps to resuscitate a long-standing right-wing pipe dream: to gut NPR's federal funding altogether. And like clockwork, after a day of increasingly frenzied rhetoric from the usual suspects, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint announced he will introduce legislation on Friday to do just that.
Regardless of what you think about Juan Williams' dismissal -- and NPR's own ombudsman has questioned how it was handled -- using it to take away public radio's funding is like asking for the death penalty in small claims court. It's crazy and it must be stopped.
Public media like NPR play a crucial role in the American information ecosystem that is otherwise drowning in a sensationalism and soundbytes. It's no secret that newspapers -- the primary source of journalism -- are slashing staff and cutting back on original reporting. Many small- and medium-sized communities now have barely any reporters acting as the eyes and ears of the public.
NPR and its public media cousins provide the bulk of in-depth journalism and educational programming on television and radio -- and they are one of the few places currently hiring journalists and expanding their efforts to cover government and big corporations. Democracy is predicated on an informed citizenry, and never has the need for a robust public media system been greater.
But Palin and her red-meat crew aren't interested in democracy or an informed citizenry. They are interested in headlines. They paint NPR as "far-left" and "politically correct, the handmaiden of terror" -- hyperbole designed to discredit media outlets that are not left wing but rather are committed to reporting hard facts and a range of viewpoints rather than blind, partisan ideological rhetoric cloaked as "fair and balanced."
Public media are far from perfect -- and certainly not above criticism for flaws in their coverage, the decisions of their leadership, and lack of diversity. But they've also earned a reputation, according to public opinion surveys, as the most trusted source of news and the most valued public institution except for the military.
Of course, government-hating zealots calling for the end of public media is nothing new here or abroad. But in this country it carries more weight because our public media system is more vulnerable. It was created with structural flaws that leave it exposed to the political whims of Washington. (Many will remember the attempts during the Bush administration to monitor public broadcasting for signs of "liberal advocacy journalism.")
The call for funding cuts is particularly galling because the United States already has one of the lowest levels of federal funding of public media in the developed world -- at just $1.43 per capita. By comparison, Canada spends $22 per capita, and England spends $80. If you're wondering why we don't have anything like the BBC, that's the biggest reason.
If the United States spent the same per capita on public media and journalism subsidies as Sweden and Norway, which rank 1 and 2, we would be spending as much as $30 billion a year on public media instead of $440 million. It's no coincidence that these same countries rank near the top of The Economist magazine's annual Democracy Index, which evaluates nations on the basis of the functioning of government, civic participation and civil liberties. On that list, the United States ranks 18th.
Yet instead of debating how to build a better public media system, we're stuck with a rotting commercial one that would rather help the likes of Palin whip up a frenzy and play up the false divide between left and right. And why not? It worked with the takedown of ACORN, with the smearing of Shirley Sherrod, and with all the other bogus controversies we're told to swallow as news.
This is no longer just about Juan Williams or NPR. It's a moment where we have to decide: Are we going to let our news media further devolve into a morass of shouting heads, hateful rhetoric and political opportunism? Or are we finally going to stand up, reject this attempt to silence one of the only remaining alternatives to the noise machine, and start working on building something even better. It starts by saying no to Sarah Palin and Jim Demint, and saying yes to sanity.
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