Politics

NPR chief denounces defunding calls in speech on future of journalism

Photo of Matthew Boyle
Matthew Boyle
Investigative Reporter

Speaking at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington Sunday on the “Future of Journalism,” National Public Radio President and CEO Vivian Schiller said she takes calls for defunding NPR “very seriously,” while stressing how important government funding is for public broadcasting, especially for NPR’s member stations. She also recognized there’s a possibility that, with the new GOP majority in the House, those calls for defunding might be renewed.

“If defunding to public broadcasting were to occur, it would be devastating to public broadcasting. That’s a fact,” Schiller said.

After Schiller fired commentator Juan Williams several weeks ago for comments he made about Muslims on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” calls for defunding NPR erupted again.

“Almost all federal funding goes to member stations,” Schiller said. “Very, very little of it goes to NPR, but a lot goes to stations.”

While NPR headquarters only receives about 1 percent of funding from tax dollars, member stations receive about 9 percent of their funding from tax dollars, Schiller said. She said that the 9 percent NPR member stations receive from taxpayer dollars is essential for them to stay on the air.

“For small stations, and even for large stations, that’s a big chunk of their revenue,” she said. “It’s been a critical part of keeping those stations vibrant and, so, we take these calls for defunding very, very seriously.”

Schiller didn’t bring up the reason why she fired Williams or whether she handled the situation appropriately during her prepared remarks, but audience members at the forum did, questioning why she didn’t opt to suspend Williams instead of fire him. The forum’s audience members also showed disappointment in NPR removing Williams, who, because he is black, helped bring diversity to NPR’s staff.

“The circumstances around the termination of his contract were a unique set of circumstances,” Schiller said. “It was unique. We have admitted, I have admitted that there were certain aspects of it that we did not handle very well. In fact, there were certain aspects of this we handled badly.”

Schiller criticized cable news during the forum for what she sees as its partisan nature. She also praised NPR’s audience as more intelligent than other media audiences, citing the comment section of a one-year old story about the Colorado boy who was suspected to have flown himself up in a balloon back in October 2009 on its website as evidence.

“We have a comment section under our blog posts, just like every other news organization,” Schiller said. “If you look at most comment sections, they are usually pretty disappointing, you know, people yelling at each other, going off subject, there’s a lot of hand-wringing in the comment section.”

The comments on NPR’s blog post about the balloon boy, Schiller said, set NPR’s audience apart from everyone else. She then proceeded to read two comments as an example.

“Twenty-foot diameter, 4-feet-tall would get you about 77 pounds of lift at sea-level, not including the weight of the equipment. Average 6-year-old is 45 pounds, average weight of equipment would be 32 pounds, which might have been reasonable if there was very thin Mylar,” the first comment read.

The second comment went on to disprove the math of the first one.