The Necessity of Public Radio

In last week’s Journal, a conservative commentator makes the “free market” case for defunding NPR, not because it’s “liberal” (read: fires bigots for being bigots), but because government funding presents an insurmountable barrier to entry to other, would-be “quality,” for-profit broadcasting providers.

Safe to say this guy isn’t getting Carl Kassel’s voice on his home answering machine. But he’s also wrong, for two reasons.

First, his argument seems to be premised on a fallacy. If NPR exists only because of government money, such that pulling government funding would kill the network, this seems to be a concession that the “quality” broadcasting model isn’t sustainable on private funds alone. If that’s true, NPR is preventing precisely no profitable businesses from entering the market, because the necessary predicate to the argument, that NPR fails on private money alone, proves that the author’s business model is simply not sustainable. Maybe the paltry amount of money NPR receives from the government is enough to give the network a competitive edge it’s able to leverage to keep out competitors. But that’s not the argument that’s being made here, and it’s separately wrong.

Second, regardless of the amount of money NPR needs from the government, the network’s ability to avoid the free market, in part, is probably uniquely responsible for its ability to provide the kind of quality content our author purports to be interested in offering. Faced with the corrosive influence of the Fox model, and the need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, very few businessmen will be able to, or even try to, resist the temptation to pander. Quality, nonbiased reporting is quite possibly one of those rare commodities for which the public will not pay, but which it desperately needs: if we can’t legally regulate speech content whatsoever (even through network ownership caps or “fairness doctrines”), the unavoidable conclusion is that the vigorous American first amendment has turned  “good journalism” into a public good. Private actors have no incentive to produce it; therefore, the government must.

Public broadcasting, then, is the best of several bad solutions to a very serious problem. How does a free nation remain free, when that very liberty depends on its citizens doing something that many would rather not do — remain informed about world events — and the government can neither force nor incentivize citizens towards that goal? The right’s feeble constitutionalism, possibly by design, can offer no answer to this difficult question.

Oh, and a closing note: to the author’s passing criticism, that the Public Broadcasting Act may fall outside of Congress’ enumerated powers, the general welfare clause (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) sweeps pretty broadly. And besides, no private actor would have standing to challenge the Act’s constitutionality. Even a prospective competitor’s interest — the closest one gets to a cognizable, redressable injury here — is by definition prospective and therefore insufficient.



  1. And just to be clear, a mere 2% of NPR’s budget is Congressionally appropriated. Politicians know this. You can’t take NPR down by defunding it.

    1. The 2% number isn’t entirely accurate. See here –

      Also while it’s 2% nationally as direct contributions, it can be up to 40% of some rural stations’ budgets, the very stations MOST likely to be fulfilling the stated goal of NPR.

  2. Personally I love NPR and listen to it daily. I’ve never found it to be overly-biased. Yes, some of the hosts are left-leaning (Teri Gross is probably the worst) but I have the option to turn off the dial when she has political guests on the show. I don’t find their news coverage biased at all (although I have several conservative friends that contend otherwise). So…despite the stupidity (IMO) of the Williams’ firing I’ll keep on listening and keep on supporting my local station.


    Since the government only provides a small amount of funding, why not just exist without it? I think their fund-raising model is brilliant and surely listeners would kick in the remaining 2%. Without public money this conversation becomes unneccessary.

    If liberals believe that public funding is “…is the best of several bad solutions to a very serious problem. How does a free nation remain free..” then why not create a competing company to offer their own take on the news? Surely the public cannot be over-informed and the contrasting opinions will allow them to get two different perspectives.

    1. The answer to this (and keep in mind that I don’t actually sit on the same side of the aisle as Ames, or at least not as deep in the crowd) is that just because there’s one terrible news network doesn’t mean it makes sense to make an equally bad one that leans another way. That’s not constructive in the least.

      1. But the point i am askiling the lefties is: If the product is so good, wouldn’t it be worth funding a second channel?

  3. This left me wondering whether Mr Lipsky thinks that the thousands of US private broadcasters don’t exist – or just that they aren’t “quality”? Both would be interesting each in its own way.

  4. I also think it’s important that NPR be government funded, partially because of this very issue.

    NPR really hates this type of press. They want to avoid it all costs. Government money acts as an incentive for them to be as unbiased and fair as possible. They definitely want to fly under the radar and do not want people continuously complaining about their reporting or accused biases(although, some will complain anyway).

    Also, I think the government backing also puts more force behind their ideological mission of being a rather fair news source and in some cases supporter of art. I mean, if they went the way of most stations, the government funding would be immediately pulled. So, it helps avoid what the market has done to almost every other channel…turn them into a morning zoo news show, top 40 station, or into Fox News Radio.

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