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Guest Column

March 19, 2011

Think twice before taking away NPR's subsidy

National Public Radio is in the news again. The network was in the news a few months back because they fired Juan Williams, one of its regular longtime contributors. Mr. Williams made some comments about feeling trepidation when boarding an airplane along with travelers wearing Muslim garb, and that sentiment, it seems, was in conflict with NPR's editorial policy. Some thought the real reason behind Williams' ouster was because he had another job as a commentator on the Fox News network, and that perhaps NPR was dismissing him for working in the enemy's camp.

The Muslim theme also was part of the latest NPR story because several freelance journalists posed as donors from the Muslim Brotherhood and met with Ron Schiller, the chief fundraiser from NPR. These journalists, labeled "conservative activists" in an NPR press release, taped their encounter with Mr. Schiller, and he is heard to make disparaging comments about Tea Party folks, calling them, among other things, racist. Schiller was subsequently forced from his position when this tape came to light, as was Vivian Schiller (no relation), NPR's CEO.

There are those on the right, long looking for an excuse to remove taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting, now clamoring for a complete cut in federal funding to NPR. They cite the progressive nature of NPR's reporting and programming, calling their views reliably biased to the left. NPR's funding amounts to about $90 million, which makes up for approximately 10 percent of its budget. The $90 million is part of a total of $430 million that Congress appropriates to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the parent company of NPR. Right-wing and Republican calls for this cut in funding are based on the belief that taxpayer money should not go to fund what amounts to an airing of a single political point of view. They further argue that listeners may choose whether to buy the products advertised on commercial radio that has a conservative bias; not so with NPR. The appropriation of our tax money to NPR does not give us a choice in funding their ideology, and therefore, funding must be cut.

This is a rational argument, but I would caution those on the right making it. Take Rudy Giuliani, for example. He has criticized NPR, calling it a "censorship program" after Williams was fired, and recommends cutting its funding. Yet Giuliani has had no trouble at all securing public money for the building of baseball stadiums. He was instrumental in getting the New York state Legislature to pony up hundreds of millions of tax dollars to fund the construction of new venues for the Mets and Yankees and their minor-league counterparts. We in the Oneonta area felt the consequences of this when the Oneonta Yankees, and then the Tigers, left our area to play at more-lucrative, taxpayer-funded ball fields. Taxpayer subsidies to Major League Baseball in the form of payment for stadium construction run into the billions of dollars across the country.

I do enjoy an occasional baseball game, but I no longer attend big-league games. I certainly would not spend the $300 to $500 it now costs to take my family of four to see a game at the new Yankee Stadium, not when hundreds of millions of New Yorkers' hard-earned tax money has already been spent on it. The Yankees have enough of my money from my taxes. I don't need to give them any more.

I am a lifelong radiophile, and I listen to NPR. I do not agree with much of what I hear on NPR, and for pure entertainment, I will listen to Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage rather than the monotonous Bob Edwards or Amy Goodman. I do listen to Ms. Goodman's "Democracy Now," though, because I know that I will hear things on that program that I will not hear anywhere else, and one of the things I like about American broadcasting is that at any time of the day, I can turn the dial and hear completely divergent opinions. As to the cost of subsidizing NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it costs me, for my family of four, about five bucks a year from my tax money. They frequently ask for donations, and I can donate more, if I wish, but I can also choose not to. They usually throw in a nice book or tote bag when I do. So, while I don't have a choice as to whether my tax money funds public radio, for that small amount, I get NPR, "Car Talk," "This American Life," "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," and "A Prairie Home Companion," to name a few. And, I don't have to pay $32 for parking, $75 for a ticket, or $15 for a hot dog and a beer.

The subsidy game is firmly established in our federal budget. Before we think about cutting NPR, perhaps we should first look at the tax benefits given to corporate entities that use the "job creation" mantra to secure public funds and then increase their coffers as a result.

Michael Kane is self-employed and lives in the town of Kortright.

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