Nazis, muckrakers, and yellow journalism: Why it's wrong for Congress to eliminate NPR funding
The rival pulpiteers / Keppler LOC.gov
I grew up in a time before the 24 hour cable news cycle and its overt political allegiances. That said, I don’t subscribe to the hysterical assumption that America was some sort of paradise of objective journalism before Fox News came along and ruined everything. In fact, Thomas Jefferson himself employed sleazebag journalist James Callendar to slander Federalist opponents Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. An American tradition was born. In 1895 William Randolph Hearst ushered in the age of yellow journalism by using his papers to successfully rally for U.S. intervention in the Cuban Revolution. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt coined the term muckraking to demean a group of journalists, including Upton Sinclair, who wrote sensational stories to draw the public’s attention to business corruption and perceived social ills.
President Theodore Roosevelt (LOC No known restrictions)
Just as promoting an agenda is an American (and indeed global) journalistic tradition, accusing journalists and news sources of promoting an agenda has deep roots. Not all such accusations are founded.
On February 19, the House passed H.R. 1, which eliminates federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Senate is scheduled to review the subject this week. Gutting funding for CPB will hurt National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service affiliate stations across the country, while saving the American tax payer approximately $1.43 a year. Not much, when you consider that every month more than half of the American population uses public media, which, in addition to programming, offers free distance learning programs, K-12 educational resources, professional development resources for teachers, lectures and forums, and oral history projects. Meanwhile, according to statistics from the Environmental Law Institute, American taxpayers subsidize gas and oil companies to the tune of an estimated 10 billion dollars per year; more than twenty times the amount previously allocated to CPB.
So why are Republicans in congress trying to get rid of CPB funding? Maybe it's because NPR has a liberal bias, according to a number of prominent Republican politicians, including Mike Huckabee. Or maybe it's because NPR is racist, an assertion talk radio host Rush Limbaugh supports by citing NPR's firing of Juan Williams. Or maybe it’s really because, famously, NPR executives are actually Nazis.
Like President Obama, NPR catches hell from both sides of the political spectrum. For example, after my dad’s death, my mother gave up on NPR and started listening to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!.“You know what NPR stands for?” she asked one day. “Nice Polite Republicans!” she finished triumphantly.
“I’ve heard that one before,” I muttered. And “at least they’re polite.”
I tried to tell my mom that I didn’t think that NPR was supporting a Republican agenda. I mentioned that some of my Republican in-laws think that NPR is a blatantly liberal mouthpiece for the socialist regime of the Democratic Party. I didn’t mention that her hero, Amy Goodman (whom my mom refers to as “Amy”. As in “You should have heard what Amy said about the climate change conference!”) depresses the hell out of me.
While I respect Goodman for her willingness to pursue stories other media sources (including NPR) are ignoring, I enjoy NPR’s less accusatory approach to reporting. I don’t turn on the news in the morning for a dose of hysteria, which is also why I don’t watch Fox News much either. NPR programming tells textured stories via real voices and multiple perspectives. Hearing strangers on StoryCorps divulge long-held truths and secrets makes me look closer at the people I pass on the street. But even when NPR correspondents are covering world events, they provide a level of detail that’s impossible when a story is being manhandled to fit a message or agenda. It’s interesting that when Mike Huckabee denounces NPR’s liberal bias, in the same blog post he admits that he enjoyed appearing on NPR programs and was ‘treated fairly and objectively’.
This year, the diversity of NPR programming has reminded me of the spectacular gamut of human existence: John Barry’s thought processes in composing the music for Goldfinger, first-hand accounts from the streets of Egypt, and a young female soldier’s reluctance to accept the mantle of hero. As far as I can tell, these stories don’t reflect ideologies specific to Republicans or Democrats, but rather an interest in human experience, which is what draws us to the news in the first place.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in 1967 with the mission to “complement, assist, and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States.” The idea was to facilitate a free way for all citizens, regardless of income level and location, to stay informed. So far, the American public has been receptive: about a quarter of funding for CPB affiliate stations comes from listeners; schools and universities, state and local governments, businesses, foundations, and CPB provide the rest.
Some Republican politicians argue that times have changed since the establishment of CPB and that the Web now negates the need for public radio and television. As Representative Doug Lamborn (Colorado-R) states, "With 500 cable TV channels, Internet on people's cell phones, satellite radio, we have so many sources of media that we don't need a government-subsidized source of media.” Lamborn is missing the point. None of the news sources he lists are free. (Yes, libraries provide Internet service, but making a special trip to the library every day to read the news takes a chunk of time that most people can’t spare. NPR allows citizens to stay informed while cleaning, commuting to work, taking care of kids or engaging in a thousand other essential activities.)
During the five years I spent teaching elementary and middle school kids, I found the PBS Web site to be a treasure trove of games and activities, none of which were skewed toward a political agenda. Regardless of your opinion about the objectivity of CPB sponsored news programming, for $1.43 NPR and PBS provides citizens with nonpartisan cultural and educational resources. Resources that are safe for kids in a way that the Web at large is not. Kids who grow up listening to NPR and watching PBS learn basic and essential information about science, civics, language, and history.
To me, the Morning Edition theme song, punctuated by the whir of a coffee grinder and the hiss of a kettle, is the sound of morning. This dates back to my rural childhood when we lived out of television reception range and an hour from the nearest newsstand or library; Oregon Public Broadcasting was a lifeline. My dad was always up before dawn, puttering in the kitchen while outside the dark woods creaked into morning. I’d sit across from him at the oilcloth-covered table and eat breakfast, listening for the roar of the school bus on the gravel road, comforted by his bear-like presence and Cokie Roberts reporting the news of the world
While I think you can argue that muckraking has its place, I’m just grateful that in my lifetime, NPR has provided a more measured and, yes, polite alternative.