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GOP Grilling NPR Is a Tired Ritual That Needs to Be Rejected

It’s been happening nearly from the moment the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in 1967 to provide federal funding for public radio and television.
NPR‘s DC headquarters (Creative Commons photo: Todd Huffman).

Every so often, Republicans in Washington engage in the ritual of shouting about public broadcasting’s supposed left-wing bias, usually threatening to cut its federal funding.

It’s been happening nearly from the moment the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in 1967 to provide federal funding for public radio and television. Nixon went after the CPB in 1969, leading to Fred Rogers’ famous congressional testimony that helped protect it. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump all launched attacks on public broadcasting. GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted to eliminate the CPB in the mid-’90s, and congressional Republicans sought to do it again in 2005 and 2011.(See Politico10/23/10FAIR.org2/18/11HuffPost 3/16/17.)

It’s hardly surprising, then, to find public radio in the GOP’s crosshairs again this year (WBMA5/8/24), since congressional Republicans have been spending most of their time launching McCarthyist hearings into the Biden administration and elite institutions they accuse of “liberal” or “woke” bias (FAIR.org4/19/24).

This time, the attack was spurred by former NPR business editor Uri Berliner’s lengthy Substack essay (Free Press4/9/24FAIR.org4/24/24) arguing that the outlet’s “progressive worldview” had compromised its journalism. The right gleefully pounced, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee called a hearing to investigate, among other things, “How can Congress develop solutions to address criticism that NPR suffers from intractable bias?”

A voice for the heard

As FAIR has documented throughout the years, the primary “intractable bias” public broadcasting suffers from is a bias toward the same corporate and political elites that dominate the rest of establishment media—despite the fact that it was created to “provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.”

We conducted our first study of the sources on NPR‘s main news programming in 1993 (Extra!4–5/93), when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. Republican guests nonetheless outnumbered Democrats 57% to 42%. Public interest voices made up 7% of sources; women were 21% of all sources.

When we revisited the guest lists in 2004 (5/04), partisan control in Washington had flipped, but little changed at NPR. Republican guests outnumbered Democrats by slightly more (61% to 38%). Public interest voices were slightly lower, and only a few percentage points more than on commercial networks (6% compared to 3% of sources). Women were still 21% of all sources.

When FAIR (7/15/15) looked at NPR‘s commentators in 2015, we found that 71% of its regular commentators (i.e., who gave two or more commentaries in the five-month study period) were white men. Eight percent were men of color, and 21% were white women; no women of color were regular commentators during the period studied.

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Led by private elites

boards of the eight most-listened-to NPR affiliate stations (7/2/15). Of the 259 board members, 75% had corporate backgrounds (e.g., executives in banks, investment firms, consulting companies and law firms). They also lacked ethnic diversity and gender parity, with 72% non-Latine white members and 66% men. In other words, legal control over public radio in this country is firmly in the hands of the privileged few.

NPR‘s national board of directors is a mix of member station managers and so-called “public members.” At the time of our study, there were ten station managers and five public members, who in fact represented the corporate elite. Shortly after FAIR’s study, NPR expanded its board to include nine public members; members today include bigwigs from AppleYahooHulu, Starbucks, consulting firm BCG and investment bank Allen & Company.

And the percentage of NPR‘s revenues that comes from corporate sponsors continues to increase over time. In 2009, that number stood at 24%; today it is 38%.

Meanwhile, NPR receives less than 1% of its funding from the federal government. But nearly a third of its revenue does come from member stations’ programming and service fees—and the CPB accounts for approximately 8% of those stations’ revenues. (Other federal, state and local government funding contributes another 6%.) That’s why NPR calls continued federal funding “critical for both stations and program producers, including NPR.”

Dampening critical coverage

There is no current threat to public broadcasting funding, with Democrats in control of the Senate and White House. Even when Republicans have controlled Washington, they’ve always backed down in the end. While that’s not inevitable, defunding isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal: The mere threat of defunding is generally sufficient to reinvigorate public media’s efforts to prove their non-liberal bona fides, pushing them to the right.

In one remarkable example, shortly after the 2011 attack on NPR, the outlet stopped distributing an opera program when its host participated in an Occupy protest.

This week’s hearing comes after months of GOP House committee hearings on campus antisemitism, in which leaders of universities (and even city K–12 schools) have been repeatedly hauled before Congress to explain why they aren’t clamping down harder on freedom of speech and assembly. Disturbingly, the committee investigating NPR has demanded that NPR CEO Katherine Maher document and report the partisan affiliations of all news media staff of the past five years, as well as all board members.

As always, these attacks are very useful in dampening critical public media coverage of even extreme right-wing rhetoric and actions. During Trump’s presidency, for instance, NPR refused to call Trump’s lies “lies” (FAIR.org1/26/173/1/17) and uncritically used far-right think tanks to defend him (FAIR.org2/7/17).

It’s because of public broadcasting’s serious vulnerability to both political and corporate pressure that FAIR has long argued (e.g., Extra!9–10/05FAIR.org2/18/11) that we need truly independent public media—public media that don’t take corporate money, or have corporate leadership, and that don’t have to appease political partisans.

In the meantime, it’s critical that NPR stand up to the GOP’s McCarthyism and refuse to accept federal funds when they come with political strings attached.

This article was originally published at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting). It is reprinted here via Creative Commons 3.0.

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Picture of Julie Hollar, FAIR

Julie Hollar, FAIR

Julie Hollar is FAIR’s senior analyst and managing editor. Julie has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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