In the weeks and months following Sept. 11, Americans turned to National Public Radio by the millions. It was a scary time, and people needed trustworthy information and analysis as they struggled to make sense of something that seemed senseless.
So worthy of respect was their coverage in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that many of the new listeners NPR gained in 2001 became committed new fans, and 9/11 became a turning point for public radio. Over the last decade, as the audience for nearly every other traditional news source has sharply declined, NPR saw its audience grow 50 percent— with nearly 30 million listeners of every political affiliation now tuning in every week and millions more downloading NPR podcasts.
Yet despite NPR’s popularity — due to its success at creating a product which the American people have deemed worth funding — public radio finds itself in jeopardy. Last week, House Republicans announced a budget proposal that would completely eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is partially responsible for funding NPR.
I have no doubt that sharp cuts to the federal budget are necessary. The Republican plan would slash education, pulverize the Environmental Protection Agency, eliminate AmeriCorps, cut funding for Great Lakes cleanup in half and reduce nutritional support for infants. I’m willing to accept the fact that some of those cuts may be necessary to get federal deficits under control.
Americans, though, cannot accept cuts to the institutions, that allow them to check the power of their government. The CPB, while accounting for a laughably small portion of the federal budget, plays an important role in holding the government accountable. Cutting the CPB, let alone eliminating it entirely, would be fundamentally inappropriate and irresponsible. That’s why strict policies exist for British lawmakers interested in adjusting the funding of the government-supported BBC.
Admittedly, the elimination of the CPB would not affect countless commercial media sources. But NPR’s 30 million listeners would argue there’s a significant difference between the service provided by NPR and that of other broadcast sources like MSNBC and Fox News. It’s a difference important enough to cause huge numbers of private citizens to donate to public radio stations like Michigan Radio here in Ann Arbor.
That difference is all about trust. When I head to the gym at 5 p.m., most of the televisions are tuned to Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News, and while I find his style especially obnoxious, my feelings apply to many of the programs on modern cable news. They’re focused on political extremes, and like Keith Olbermann before his departure from MSNBC, Beck concentrates on entertaining his audience. It’s an unavoidable condition of commercially-funded media that he makes money, not based on the merit of his analysis, but based on his ability to entertain and retain viewers.
That’s what makes NPR’s business model so special and its cause so important. NPR reporters take home money only if they can convince listeners their report was so well composed, so unbiased and so important to the general population that it warrants a donation or a CPB grant to sustain future reports. The built-in emphasis on quality over entertainment is what makes public media unlike any other form of media on the planet. The only way I manage to survive 30 minutes on a treadmill listening to Glenn Beck is the knowledge that I’ll soon climb into my car and hear those calm, sane words, “From NPR news in Washington…” They’re words that say, “Go ahead, Nick, make up your own mind.”
Forty years ago this April, NPR began its broadcasts with live coverage of the Senate hearings on the war in Vietnam. Since then, NPR and its journalists have accumulated hundreds of awards, including 53 George Foster Peabody Awards. Far more importantly, though, it has gained the trust of the American people as an even-handed source for news and analysis. For 40 years, as an independent government watchdog and source of top-quality journalism, NPR has been protecting our freedoms through its reporting. Now it’s our turn to protect NPR.
Nicholas Clift is an Engineering sophomore.