Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Glenn Garvin on the NPR Scandal

From the Miami Herald:
If just 2 percent of NPR’s money comes from the government, why not just tell Congress to take a flying frack at a rolling doughnut? Two percent, heck, you could make that up on doughnuts. Tens of millions of Americans have taken hits of more than 2 percent in this economy and lived to tell about it. And think of the inner tranquility that 2 percent nip and tuck would buy: Nobody from NPR would ever again have to listen to some braying reactionary complaining that NPR has more practicing witches on its staff than Republicans. (Even if it’s true: NPR reporter Margot Adler is a Wiccan high priestess, while any registered Republicans on the staff remain deeply closeted.)

The answer: NPR gets a lot more than 2 percent of its budget from taxpayers — perhaps 20 times that. It’s completely a creature of government subsidies and cannot possibly survive in anything like its current form if Congress plucks public broadcasting from the federal teat. NPR’s real costs are hidden in a system of back-and-forth payments quaintly known along the Bogota-Miami axis as “money-laundering.”

Here’s how it works: Congress gives money to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which cuts off a small slice — the hallowed 2 percent — and hands it directly to NPR. The rest of the money goes out to public radio stations themselves, who then pay it back to NPR as programming fees. Other taxpayer money — from the Energy Department, state and local governments and state universities — also gets mixed into the pot.

In the end, something close to 40 percent of NPR’s budget has been extracted from taxpayers. And that doesn’t even include tax money spent on the operations of the radio stations themselves, without which there would be no audience for NPR programming. If NPR bosses look slightly twitchy when they talk about how insignificant their subsidies are, it’s probably because they’re glancing around for signs that the roof is about to fall in on them.