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Trapping National Public Radio of the U.S.

Did National Public Radio get a raw deal when an executive was secretly taped making indiscreet political comments about conservatives, provoking calls from Republicans to cut off its federal funding? Could be. It turns out that the unedited video ― according to Glenn Beck’s website “The Blaze” ― shows “questionable editing and tactics” designed to misrepresent executive Ron Schiller’s attitudes.

It may be too late to help Schiller, who was pushed out over some remarks he made (such as calling tea partyers “seriously racist”) that betray dubious judgment, regardless of context. Chief Executive Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron) is also out of a job partly because of the furor, though she had already made lots of enemies over the October dismissal of commentator Juan Williams.

The sins attributed to NPR by conservatives may be much milder than what was claimed by the sting operator, conservative activist James O’Keefe. So let’s be clear: NPR should not stop getting federal subsidies because it has a soft spot for sharia law or the Muslim Brotherhood, as he suggests.

No, it should stop getting federal subsidies for a much better reason: Its chief patron is broke. When the federal government is running enormous deficits year in and year out, it has to focus its resources on its central responsibilities. Among those are national defense, law enforcement, fostering economic growth, retirement security and the like. News gathering and public affairs coverage are not core functions. A House vote on a resolution to strip NPR’s federal money could come as early as Thursday.

NPR and its TV cousin, the Public Broadcasting System, provide programming that is valuable and valued. But so do many newspapers. So do many radio and TV stations. So do many websites. These two, however, are the only ones that expect taxpayer support.

Could they survive without it? Undoubtedly. NPR gets only about 2 percent of its budget from the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS about 15 percent. Would a cutoff be painful? Sure. Fatal? No way. Forgoing the money would compel them and their member stations to find ways to do their job in a more economical way. But plenty of American companies and other institutions have had to do exactly the same thing in the last few years, and most of them have managed. There is no reason public broadcasting can’t do the same.

In fact, it’s far better positioned than most organizations to cope. The New York Times reports that over the last year, while other media outlets have been battered, NPR has “added audience, reporters and revenue.”

The shift away from federal dependence would remove NPR and PBS from the political arena, where they are often punching bags for partisans accusing them of taxpayer-supported bias. Today, it’s Republicans complaining that public broadcasters are scandalously liberal. A few years ago, it was Democrats accusing CPB’s then-Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson of pushing a conservative agenda.

There’s only one way to escape that trap. True independence comes from self-sufficiency. Given the chance, public broadcasters could learn to like it.

(Chicago Tribune, March 16)