Save NPR!

I know.  I know.  NPR is a bastion of welfare-state liberalism.  True enough.  I hate the politics of most NPR contributors, staff, and editors as much as anyone.

Still, I love NPR.  What’s more I think conservatives and libertarians should fight to save NPR.   If you made a list of the dumbest things done by smart people, NPR’s recent firing of Juan Williams has to certainly be near the top of the list.  Wrong on the merits.  Wrong on the strategy.  (Or maybe NPR has a weird management strategy where the really dumb people get left with the important decisions like the rapid firing of Williams before taking the time to rub two of their brain cells to figure out how ridiculous this is–you know the people who do the pledge drive and the only thing they can think of to say is the phone number over and over.  Those people.)

Here is why conservatives and libertarians should preserve NPR and not listen to all the rabble that talk about killing it: It is really the only good place to hear conservative and libertarian positions on the radio.  The print media and the web are full of lots of thoughtful people.  But radio?  It is almost entirely a wasteland, which is sad because radio is really the only media form that allows one to multi-task and do other things, like have a life (as opposed to blog reading, for example!)

Sure, they don’t give the Right equal time; they are condescending; they are godless; they are snobs and elitists; they can barely keep their biases and left-wing politics hidden beneath the facade.  I don’t care.  They make damn good radio.  In fact, the only radio really worth listening to.

Leftists talk about how they don’t have a good option to all the conservative talk radio, which they try to suppress through government action by advocating outrageous policies like the Fairness Doctrine.    Give me a break.  The left has NPR and the whole network media enterprise on their side.  The real issue is that conservatives don’t have a good option to NPR.  My local affiliate recently did an hour long conversation with David Boaz.  It was thoughtful and balanced and featured a prominent libertarian intellectual.  When has Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh done a thoughtful hour of programming on….well…anything?  Seriously, crying on air with a flag rippling in the background doesn’t make what you are saying meaningful, or even patriotic for that matter.

Most of what comes over NPR airwaves isn’t that political.  It is just interesting and engaging (most of the time).  And they at least do a passable job at trying to bring in varying opinions, even if it is obvious they don’t respect them.   Almost all the intelligent commentary I have heard over the airwaves over the years has come from NPR.  I still recall an NPR reporter in Chicago trying to take on the brilliant, libertarian legal scholar Richard Epstein.  Even though that was a hilarious mismatch, can you imagine Limbaugh having an intelligent conversation with Epstein–well he might, as long as he let Epstein do all the talking (which he wouldn’t do, because the main problem with these conservative radio jocks is that they love to hear their own silly voices).

The right still hasn’t recovered from the loss of it’s intellectual godfather,  Bill Buckley.  As long as NPR continues to talk with people on the right and the left and give them their say, I say let them flourish.  If they were forced to go private, they would probably become much more liberal and less intelligent.  Do we really need more Olbermans?

Jonah Goldberg argues that even though he doesn’t think they deserve public funding, the Republicans would be stupid to try to take this on as an issue because it would backfire and only give Democrats ammunition in the culture war.  I would add that federal funding for NPR is a pittance.  There are so many more worthwhile targets for libertarian disgust than NPR.  Find one and shoot at it instead!

[I would also add that my spouse, who is a fairly conservative, stay-at-home mom, listens to NPR frequently and, as a result, knows a huge amount of interesting stuff.  I get great external benefits from this, since I don’t get to listen all that much myself, but I get to talk with her.  You should all be so lucky!]

17 thoughts on “Save NPR!

  1. Really Sven? They do good work in our judgment (I agree with you in liking much NPR programming as well), so let’s coerce others to support it as well? Is the view really that our apprehension of value justifies coercing others to promote it? That seems indistinguishable to me from exactly the justification every moronic liberal gives for the idiotic policies they endorse. If it just comes down to whether there are more of us than there are of them, or vice versa, then we can skip the pretext of argument and just start organizing our use of force.

    1. Mark, I can’t say I have a rebuttal, since I have used versions of your argument many times myself. But let me suggest why public support of NPR might not be as “idiotic” as you think, though I’m certain I won’t be convincing, and some of my arguments you will probably hate even more than ones I’ve already given.

      Radio transmission on the airwaves is a classic public good (non-rivalrous and non-excludable). Of course government has already “solved” this problem by creating private property rights for different pieces of the spectrum. Obviously, the existence of multiple commercial radio stations is proof positive that the market can provide radio. But can it provide good radio? I think NPR might be able to survive without public subsidies, but it might not. And I think it would change for the worse were it to go private for reasons I’ve mentioned. A reasonably balanced, high quality educational radio station on the open airwaves might not persist because of the same free-riding incentives that kill other public goods that don’t receive funding.

      Externality arguments are always a slippery slope. But I think they apply here. I think having a high quality outlet like NPR is a positive externality in many ways. I wouldn’t put vast sums into it, but we don’t put vast sums into it. And I wouldn’t support it if it weren’t relatively high quality, but it is (I claim) high quality. Indeed, compared to federal expenditures in general, I think we get very high value for the dollar. NPR funding isn’t a traditional case of rent-seeking, where the benefits of the subsidy are highly concentrated among the rent-seekers and the costs are diffuse. I think the benefits are quite widely diffuse. In fact, unlike agricultural subsidies or a variety of pork barrel projects that only a limited number of people benefit from, NPR programs have a national audience in reach of almost the entire population. That people choose not to listen to it doesn’t concern me. I am more interested in the people–liberals, moderates and conservatives–who are awakened to the the life of the mind and to the idea of reasoned, civil discourse through NPR each year.

      I would go even further and claim that the community benefits from NPR even though most people don’t listen to it. I think it is something that crosses racial, class, and income divides. I think it has a civilizing effect on a nation rapidly losing its civilization.

      Though there is a lot of empty rhetoric about “the public interest,” I think NPR does serve the public interest–providing information, insights, commentary and education about issues that are clearly important in ways that are hard to see being provided elsewhere on the radio dial. Perhaps NPR is crowding out what might be provided by commercial or non-profit stations, but I doubt it.

      I also support limited public funding of the arts. I think there is something meritorious about the state giving life and voice to the “best of humanity,” and I would put NPR (as a general rule) in that camp.

      Out of the many posts I have (and will have) that are not liked by libertarians, this one may turn out to be one of the most disliked. Oh well.

      1. Also, in a democratic republic, our representatives are charged with making just these kinds of value judgments. I get the argument that promoting a radio station isn’t the proper role of government, that the enterprise doesn’t justify the use of coercive power (though I’ve argued why I think it does). But if we were to agree on the claim that funding a high quality public radio station were the role government, I think it is appropriate that our representatives make value judgments on what characteristics would be desirable for it to have, and what would be undesirable (though I wouldn’t want Congress making editorial decisions).

  2. To defend Sven, he doesn’t appear to directly say public funding for NPR can be defended (though he skirts close to it when he notes that going private would be problematic and that we should want it to flourish – as if that were impossible without public funding).

    However, I agree with Mark and Jason – I can’t conjure up any serious, real, legitimate philosophical rationale consistent with my views (that Sven largely shares) that could justify NPR receiving public funding.

    I would go further than Sven and Mark and say that I find most NPR content absolutely insufferable. Like fingers across a blackboard most of the time. So it wouldn’t bother me much at all to see it go the way of the dinosaurs.

    Of course, opera should definitely receive public funding….. 😉

  3. On a second read, maybe I spoke too soon defending Sven. He writes: “What’s more I think conservatives and libertarians should fight to save NPR.” I assume he meant save it from the defunding attempts/desires of conservatives and libertarians – and then proceeds to say why we ought to continue supporting NPR. In other words, public funding is justified because it is good radio and it gives air time to folks like David Boaz.

    So, I had fallen victim to the opposite of blogging disease. I’d given Sven the benefit of the doubt where he deserved none!

  4. BTW Sven, why do you assume that NPR couldn’t survive as it is without public funding? Moreover, even if it disappeared, the Discovery Channel, C-SPAN, and other private entities that have largely eclipsed PBS show that private tv and radio don’t have to turn into a cultural/educational wasteland equivalent to Rush/Beck. The market is a big, diverse thing that will provide for many different tastes – including your bad taste in radio! 😉

  5. Sven, have you ever heard satellite radio? It’s all commercial, unsubsidized. They run public radio programs too, but of course most of those public radio programs are commercially produced anyway. And the non-public radio stations, from BBC World Service to POTUS Politics, are generally quite good (yes, there are hyperventilating talkers too).

    What this implies to me is that good commercial radio can succeed if the spectrum were opened up more fully. Look at FM radio – same situation. It’s terrible. But there are some decent music stations on satellite radio.

    1. I think the growth of satellite radio might weaken my arguments for NPR. But I’ve always thought of satellite radio as something someone gets who is in the market for a new Lexus–not something that ordinary people would have. But I probably need to update.

  6. Sven,

    People who are asking for NPR to be defunded, have never listened to this fine radio.

    NPR offers a variaty of shows that provide information about the world aroud us and society. Unlike Fox, NPR does offer balanced opinions from both the Conservative and Liberal standpoint.

    Funny that the people who the most outspoken about NPR, are Fox’s payroll: O’Reilly, Palin, and Huckabee. Coincidence? I do not think so.

  7. Sven,
    While I can’t say that I support your position on public funding, I do personally choose to support our local NPR affiliate, WFIT in Melbourne, Florida. I would argue that it is one of the most diverse programming venues in the country (it is accessable online and I encourage all to check it out, beginning with a look at the progam calendar).
    Like many stations WFIT just completed their semi-annual fund drive, to which I gave. I followed up my gift with a note to the station manager, mainly praising their commitment to varied and esoteric programming, with one request…please find a program to offset the partisan perspective of “Democracy Now!”. Following is her inadequate response:

    “Your comments regarding Democracy Now! are well-taken. We have researched other programming offered by the public radio community looking for conservative-leaning content. NPR’s On-Point seemed to fulfill that criteria and we aired it for a year just a few years ago (I forget exactly when.) Unfortunately, we had little financial community support for that show. Democracy Now! has consistently brought in healthy donations from listeners and so we continue to air it and not On-Point. Other than Democracy Now!, I am not aware of any other programming in our community that has a “progressive political perspective.” There is, however, a (commercial) radio station, WMMB, that airs a conservative political perspective all day long.”

    Considering its public funding sources, I find this a wholely inadequate alternative response.

  8. Wow… I had just stumbled upon this blog and read a few interesting articles, and was about to add it to my already overly lengthy list of sites I visit regularly, when I read Sven’s article defending funding for NPR. There are too many interesting, informative, and provacative sites to be followed regularly as it is. Now that I see the wobbly principles espoused in the article above, I think I’ll save myself the trouble of adding this blog site to my list. If I want to listen to people with a shaky to non-existent grasp of the principles they supposedly espouse, I can simply listen to the Republican establishment that brought us big-spending big-government for 8 years under Dubbya. Life is too short to be wasted on sites filled with articles like the one above….

    1. And my guess would be that if you turn aside from a site that has “interesting articles” because you find one article you don’t like, you are not likely to be persuaded by anything said here. I’m sure you can keep your self plenty busy just reading the stuff you agree with.

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