On Friday morning as I was driving to work, listening to the always outstanding and insightful NPR program Morning Edition, a short report aired that is emblematic of why this country must continue to embrace and support a vibrant public media.
The piece, reported by Media Correspondent David Folkenflik, documented the fallout from NPR's decision to terminate the contract of former news analyst Juan Williams. Top news executive Ellen Weiss has resigned following the firestorm surrounding the Williams firing, and CEO Vivian Schiller did not escape rebuke, either. The organization's board has announced her 2010 bonus will be withheld. In addition, an independent external review has recommended a series of reforms, including the rules governing how NPR staffers express themselves on-air.
The report included a sound bite from Robert Siegel, NPR's All Things Considered host, a colleague and champion of Weiss, who nonetheless said, ""It doesn't surprise me that somebody was going to go, after the incredibly sloppy, messy and often embarrassing severance of Juan Williams."
It was professional, even-handed, and thorough, hallmarks of NPR's reporting.
Could the Williams matter have been better handled? Most agree that it could have, including many well-respected voices at NPR. Does a bungled personnel matter serve as justification to gut all federal funding for a news organization that consistently does a better job than almost any other media outlet at bringing in-depth, insightful and comprehensive reporting to every big city and small town in this country? Absolutely not.
Why? Two reasons. First, defunding NPR won't really hurt NPR. It will go on and continue to turn out 24/7 quality, day in, day out. But the defunders, if they're successful, will do quite a bit of damage to local public broadcasting outlets around the country, which are often the only source of in-depth, quality reporting in the communities they serve.
Second, the old conservative rallying cry that NPR expresses a predominantly liberal viewpoint, is biased, and thus deserves no taxpayer support, doesn't hold water, in my view, and also according to the conclusions of multiple independent studies that have analyzed the diversity of political voices heard on public radio. Right-wing critics will point to on-air remarks made by other correspondents over the years as proof of a double standard (if I had a nickel for every email I received about Nina Totenberg during the Williams flap, I could retire next week).
My response: listen to NPR every day for a month. You will be amazed and delighted at the stories and programs you hear. Overwhelmingly, the content is intelligent, interesting, thoughtful, and incredibly wide-ranging, literally covering the world and making it more accessible to our highly insulated country. I think of the testimonial recorded at WJCT by John Delaney, former Republican mayor of Jacksonville and president of the University of North Florida. In it, he said, "I always listen. I may not always agree with every point of view, but I strongly support the quality of the programming I hear."
Critics of public broadcasting, some in Congress, have loudly argued, "We don't need public media anymore. It's a 500-channel universe." To them I would counter, it's precisely because of that boisterous 500-channel universe that we do need a strong public media, now more than ever. We need the Robert Siegels and Terry Grosses and Ira Glasses and Michele Norrises of the world to serve as an essential counterweight to the increasingly uncivil, raucous, sharply partisan media universe that in so many ways, does a poor job of informing us.
I suspect those who see NPR as "too liberal" are really more steamed about the fact that NPR actually does strive for the journalistic ideal other networks falsely claim to represent -- fair and balanced. The idea is to be civil and courteous to all comers -- to give a platform to all points of view, while debating their merits.
Perhaps they also take offense to our old-fashioned notion of "community." In an age where powerful forces seek to divide us into red and blue, city and country, coastal or Middle America, NPR -- still -- seeks to speak to everyone, seeks to include all segments of the population. There's a reason its flagship show is called All Things Considered. My station, WJCT, has this tagline "community-supported public radio." I can attest with absolute certainty that my employer is the only radio station in my area that consistently draws support from rich and poor, young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, country music lovers and hip-hop fans. Most stations narrowcast. We truly broadcast, and we see it as a public service.
In an era of media consolidation, braying and often offensive cable news, and ever-shrinking print journalism, NPR is one of the only media outlets actually expanding, bringing listeners amazing reporting from around the country and around the world. And it's important to note the U.S. already spends a mere pittance on public media, compared to other industrialized countries.
Why support public media? Because in these uncertain times, the citizenry of this country need to be well-informed, more than ever. NPR, around the clock and every day of the year, does an outstanding job of that. Just ask the 170 million Americans who support public broadcasting. And click on this link to join them.