Written by Rachel Abrams
First, President Donald Trump questioned the existence of National Public Radio in a tweet. Then, as part of the annual budget request released last Monday, he recommended slashing federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the body that distributes taxpayer dollars to NPR and other public media outlets, to $0 by 2023.
Past budget proposals from Trump have apparently had little influence over the amounts that public media has received from the government. For the 2020 fiscal year, the White House recommended $30 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Congress, which has traditionally shown support for public media, ultimately decided on $465 million.
Although Congress controls how much federal money goes to public broadcasters, NPR is not taking the potential threat lightly. About 1% of its budget comes from federal money, but Mike Riksen, an NPR vice president, said the funding was “essential” to public radio.
“Elimination of federal funding would result in fewer programs, less journalism — especially local journalism — and, eventually, the loss of public radio stations, particularly in rural and economically distressed communities,” Riksen said. “We are fully engaged with policymakers to ensure a complete understanding of federal funding and its importance to our stations and the public media system.”
The White House budgeted $30 million for public broadcasting in 2021. For 2022 — the last year of federal funding for public media, if the president got his way — Trump proposed $28 million.
Despite the lack of support from the administration, Paul G. Haaga Jr., a longtime Republican donor who is the chairman of NPR’s board of directors, said he believed public media was not in danger.
He recalled conversations that he’d had with Republican lawmakers soon after he joined the board. “They’d leaned over and say, ‘Don’t tell anybody in the caucus, but I love NPR and couldn’t live without it,’” Haaga said. “And I’d lean over and say, ‘Don’t tell anybody, but everybody in the caucus tells me that, too.’”
Nevertheless, NPR has been under scrutiny lately after tensions arose between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and journalist Mary Louise Kelly.
Kelly, an anchor of the NPR news show “All Things Considered,” said Pompeo had used foul language during a tense exchange on Jan. 24 after she pressed him on the administration’s Ukraine policy as part of a taped interview.
Two days after the encounter, Mark Levin, a conservative host of a syndicated radio program and a Fox News show, asked on Twitter, “Why does NPR still exist?” He described the outlet as a “Democrat Party propaganda operation.”
Trump retweeted Levin’s post, adding a comment of his own: “A very good question!”
That same day, the State Department barred NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen from traveling as a member of the press pool on a government airplane with Pompeo. Kelemen, who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades, was set to travel with Pompeo to Europe and Central Asia.
The State Department Correspondents’ Association, lawmakers and commentators spoke out in support of NPR afterward. A Fox News host, Steve Hilton, referred to Pompeo as a “baby” and a “bully.”
Donations to many NPR affiliates spiked in the days after the president’s tweet and the clash with the State Department, according to an NPR spokeswoman. Direct contributions to Southern California Public Radio increased 250%, said Rob Risko, the director of membership.
Donations to the public station KMUW in Wichita, Kansas — a city in the congressional district once represented by Pompeo — rose 90%, the general manager, Debra Fraser, said. Pledges came in from 12 states.
KMUW, a station with 25 employees, would survive if federal funding disappeared, Fraser said. “The problem is the rural stations,” she added. “They can’t make that up.”
The bulk of NPR’s funding comes from corporate sponsors and fees it receives from affiliate radio stations.
Congress approves the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s annual budget two years in advance — meaning the budget for 2020 was approved in 2018. While the White House can request a reduction of that money in its annual proposal, the lead time affords public broadcasting some protection, said Bill Davis, the president emeritus at Southern California Public Radio.
“That forward funding does provide a modicum of a heat shield, if you will, from this kind of political dust-up,” he said.
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