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Every couple of years, conservative members of Congress launch highly partisan attempts to root out alleged “bias” at NPR and PBS — which remain incredibly popular and trusted among the American public — and threaten to slash funding that supports local nonprofit radio and TV affiliates nationwide. 

2024’s so-called outrage? A contentious and inaccurate critique of NPR published by a disgruntled editor. In it, then-NPR senior editor Uri Berliner claimed that NPR ignores conservative viewpoints and storylines.

The latest attempt to defund NPR

GOP members of Congress claim that Berliner’s essay proves that “NPR suffers from intractable bias,” arguing that “it is time Congress investigates how federal dollars are being used at NPR and what reforms may be necessary.”  

While I don’t represent NPR, PBS or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I was called to testify on May 8, 2024, before a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee to offer my views about public funding for local news and information, a pillar of Free Press’ work over the past 20 years.

In testifying, I hoped to provide a voice for NPR’s tens of millions of weekly listeners, who rely on the service for fact-checked journalism, local viewpoints and international coverage. But I also hoped to paint a picture of the possibilities of an expanded public-media system, one that receives more robust public funding for the kinds of local news and information that have gone missing in local communities.

Over the past two decades, I have been both an advocate for and a critic of the public broadcasting system — which I believe can do more to live up to its mandate and mission. This won’t be accomplished by tarnishing the reputation of NPR’s accomplished journalists, tearing down the institution or starving it of funds. 

But inquiries like the House hearing will likely make NPR leadership more timid, and I imagine that’s the point.

Defunding threats don’t just harm NPR executives — they endanger the work of more than 1,000 local radio stations providing essential information to communities large and small.

While I always welcome Congress’ interest in public media, especially given the crisis in local journalism, I’m perplexed that an essay by one disgruntled editor at NPR is cause for a congressional inquiry.

Is NPR biased?

Berliner’s essay (which was published, confusingly enough, in a Substack publication called “The Free Press”) is riddled with fuzzy math and cherry-picked evidence. For example, he inaccurately describes several stories as going uncovered, when NPR did extensive reporting or publicly interrogated its own editorial decision-making about them.

That said, public media’s purpose should be to tell stories not already told by commercial media and serve audiences not represented elsewhere.

Berliner laments NPR’s increased focus on racial diversity since 2020. If in 2024 you’re still questioning whether systemic racism exists, you should probably spend more time listening to the experiences of your colleagues from different backgrounds.

If Berliner had done so, he would have found many people of color inside and outside of NPR and PBS who consistently and repeatedly criticized public media’s failures to reach and serve new and diverse audiences. Numerous NPR and PBS employees and associates also raised concerns about the workplace environment for people of color at NPR and PBS, editorial decision-making, and budgeting and funding priorities when it comes to media makers from marginalized backgrounds.

Berliner’s supposed bombshell that D.C. residents in NPR’s newsroom are all registered Democrats — in a city where just 5 percent of voters are registered as Republicans — doesn’t withstand scrutiny either. As NPR journalist Steve Inskeep points out, NPR has 662 people in its newsrooms around the world, including far more in D.C. than the 87 Berliner tallied. The numbers don’t add up.

Yet these rickety claims have sent a GOP-controlled House subcommittee down a precarious path. I’m deeply concerned about the request the House majority sent in a letter to NPR CEO Katherine Maher, asking her to track and report to Congress on the political affiliations of NPR’s newsroom employees.

This dangerous overreach, which came at the urging of House Speaker Mike Johnson, raises serious First Amendment concerns and smacks of a political loyalty test. While Congress has a role in overseeing the operations and financial management of NPR, threats to defund it based on a perceived failure to cover certain topics or hire certain people strike at the heart of journalistic freedom.

Yes, there must also be a firewall between NPR executives and the newsroom. NPR’s new CEO may have once volunteered for a Biden campaign. The head of the CPB used to co-chair the RNC. Neither is, nor should be, involved in editorial decisions.

Berliner insists he doesn’t want NPR defunded, but his complaints have been seized upon by those who seek to defang or destroy public media. This is just the latest chapter in a long history of attacking NPR personnel on trumped-up charges of bias.

We need to strengthen public media (not destroy it)

There is another path. Instead, Congress should take this moment of crisis in local journalism as an opportunity to talk about how to rebuild and expand the public-media system to meet the real needs of local communities.

There’s much common ground to explore on this topic. At the hearing, I found myself in agreement with Howard Husock of the American Enterprise Institute, who also argued that more public-media resources should be devoted to local journalism to replant news deserts.

With changes to the law, this could go beyond broadcasting to support emerging nonprofit news outlets that are providing in-depth and Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. Right now, the United States spends a pittance per capita on public media when compared to other healthy democracies. That’s just $3.16 per capita a year in public funding compared to $75–$100 per capita or more annually in countries like England, France, Germany and Norway. That’s literally pocket change.

Instead of cutting back even further, Congress should increase funding for public media and ensure that locally engaged outlets — and those reaching the diverse audiences NPR hasn’t — can receive more support. This should not be a partisan debate about right versus left, but rather one about returning the public airwaves to local hands, lifting up diverse local viewpoints, amplifying community affairs and playing local music over the airwaves.

I imagine many members of Congress remember a time when there were multiple local outlets covering their campaigns and accomplishments — actually telling people back home what they do in Washington.

A renewed and vibrant public-media system focused on local voices is possible. But it requires a different approach, one that builds on public media’s founding purpose, quoting President Johnson, to use the public airwaves, “which belong to all the people … for the enlightenment of all the people.”

Help Free Press Action keep fighting to protect public media: Donate today.

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