Commentary: NPR funding should not be cut

Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. MCT

National Public Radio, long a whipping boy of many conservative members of Congress and right-wing commentators, unwittingly gave its assailants yet another weapon to use in its lashing.

The haters of public broadcasting last week sounded like the little people of Munchkin Land after Dorothy's tornado-tossed house inadvertently fell on the evil Witch of the East.

The cause of their most recent jubilation came after the posting and publicizing of a sting video showing two NPR fundraising executives having lunch with people posing as representatives of a Muslim organization who wanted to make a $5 million donation to the network.

Concocted by videographer James O'Keefe, previously known best for posing as a swaggering, fur-wearing pimp with a prostitute at an ACORN office, the luncheon video mostly features NPR Foundation Senior Vice President Ron Schiller responding to statements by two impostors baiting him to say things they thought might prove that the network is a liberal-biased propaganda machine.

During the meeting, Schiller says the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party movement, whose members he described as "seriously racist, racist people." He also said NPR would be better off without federal funding, a statement most detractors have taken out of context but still a stupid thing to say to anyone, much less strangers.

Also at that lunch was another NPR fundraising honcho, Betsy Liley. She did not say much but, according to a subsequently released taped telephone conversation, she later told the fake organization that NPR was prepared to accept its money and probably could shield its identity if the donation were "anonymous."

Schiller, who planned to leave NPR in May, quickly resigned. Liley was placed on leave. The network's CEO, Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron), was forced by the board to resign.

I don't assume that the video was void of O'Keefe's doctored editing, similar to what he did in the ACORN tapings, but it doesn't matter. Great damage was done to NPR and its local affiliates with what we know was said, in or out of context.

For those in Congress who have tried for years to cut federal funding for public broadcasting -- a battle that comes every few years -- this latest embarrassment gives them more ammunition. Coming on the heels of the messy firing of commentator Juan Williams last October for something he said about Muslims on Fox television, it only compounded NPR's troubles with lawmakers.

Despite all of that, it would be a drastic mistake for Congress to withdraw funding from public broadcasting -- not because of the direct impact it would have on those entities under its umbrella, but because of how it would affect that "public" it serves.

Admittedly, I'm a former employee of public broadcasting. I was station manager of the local NPR and PBS stations, and I've served on several programming committees of both networks. Although I haven't worked for them in years, I still participate in the regular on-air fundraising drives.

NPR is still the most comprehensive, objective and engaging broadcast news organization in the country.

Yes, I'm biased, but that opinion is shared by millions around the country who depend on it daily.

What the American public needs to understand, regardless of what the latest "stings" might imply, is that the fundraising arms of the networks and local stations have no say in programming. Potential funders are made aware from the start that their money will not and cannot dictate the content of any programming, especially the news.

Donors, who are identified in the underwriting credits, must trust the integrity of program producers who are expected to do their jobs without regard to where the money came from. In those cases where news stories include coverage of a contributor, that fact is clearly noted.

The experienced and talented journalists and news managers at NPR prove daily that they are among the best in the business, able to tackle stories that are tough, sensitive, controversial and entertaining with insightful care.

I'm convinced they will continue to do that despite these latest distractions and attacks.

Although the average federal funding for most public stations is about 10 percent of their budgets, to lose that money would be painful for most and devastating to many.

We must let Congress know that we will not stand for gutting this important American institution called public broadcasting.

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