Saturday, October 23, 2010

Juan Williams Fired- Your Free Market At Work

Alex Pareene in Salon wrote in August

This is my favorite kind of Corner post. The ones that incoherently blame some private company or industry's (exaggerated or even imagined) idiocies on, somehow, liberals, political correctness, the gub'mint, etc.

He links to a post on National Review Online in which John Hood panned KFC for pushing grilled chicken and sandwiches based on, in the company's words, "extensive consumer research." "In both the public and private sectors," Hood argues, "far too many decisions are made on the basis of silly fads, partial glimpses of nebulous trends, a temptation to placate powerful interest groups, or a pathetic desire to be seen as enlightened." Unsurprisingly, he slams government and excuses the private sector in which, "subjected to the rigors of competition, these firms tend to pay the price over time and adjust their behavior accordingly. In the public sector, however, politicians don’t have to worry as much about losing ground to competitors. Their absurdities persist. Their pretensions multiply."

Ah, the rationalization of the right. Last year, multi-millionaire National Football League owners persuaded their parent company, the NFL, to reject Rush Limbaugh's bid to become part-owner of one of their divisions, the St. Louis Rams. Having previously made a racially polarizing statement, Limbaugh's involvement would, they believed, itself become divisive and eventually hurt their bottom line. True to form, Rush blamed rejection on the corporatist conservatives' favorite boogeymen: unions, black activists, the mainstream media, and Barack Obama. Surely, the private sector could not have done this to him (or to anyone of merit).

One year after Limbaugh is rejected by the multi-billion dollar National Football League and two months after National Review simultaneously condemns sensitivity and excuses it because it isn't government, Juan Williams is sacked by NPR. Mike Huckabee comments

While I have often enjoyed appearing on NPR programs and have been treated fairly and objectively, I will no longer accept interview requests from NPR as long as they are going to practice a form of censorship, and since NPR is funded with public funds, it IS a form of censorship. It is time for the taxpayers to start making cuts to federal spending, and I encourage the new Congress to start with NPR.

Obviously, Mike Huckabee wouldn't recognize censorship (prior restraint) if it smacked him in the face. But you would almost think that NPR (which changed its name from National Public Radio for a reason) is a government agency. Its funding, however, suggests otherwise, as the pie chart (from NPR) below indicates.

Good luck understanding this illustration. Tracing the source of NPR funding is fairly complicated. Although it receives no direct funding from the federal government, NPR's local stations, as blogger Andrew Phelps of Boston public radio explains

receive some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a taxpayer-funded, nonprofit, private corporation, created by Congress in 1967. (Think of it like the Red Cross.)

NPR does receive grants from CPB for special projects, but that funding is not included as part of the network’s operations budget.

According to The New York Times

Taxpayer money goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which apportions money for local radio and television stations across the country.

NPR gets no direct money from the federal government for its $161.8 million annual budget. It does receive some dedicated grants from Corporation for Public Broadcasting for projects like covering the country’s economic crisis; in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 combined, those grants totaled just over $5.2 million. NPR also gets occasional grants from from sources financed by the federal government. In all, NPR said those grants accounted for 1 to 2 percent of its income on average.

The biggest portion — about 41 percent in recent years — of NPR’s revenue comes from member station programming fees and dues. Those stations themselves receive $90 million in federal funds each year. On average, that accounts for about 10 percent of the stations’ income, according to NPR.

The remainder of NPR’s revenue comes from sponsors and, to a lesser extent, foundations, non-federal grants and investments.

But arguing that NPR's reliance on the federal government is understated, the conservative blog NewsBusters argues that the federal government finances 6-8% of the NPR budget. Thus, in defending elimation of federal funding, a right-wing site estimates that Washington's contribution may be as high as.... 8%!

Presumably, then, NPR relies on the federal government for something between 2% and 8% (inclusive) of its funding. The response of Mike Huckabee, as well as Jim DeMint and some other congressional Republicans, is to eliminate this huge source of income which, their supporters are to believe, will cut government broadcasting (which it is not) off at its knees (which it won't). The con is on.

But the more significant myth is the one highlighted by the KFC and the Limbaugh affairs. An angle that has received far less attention than it merits was discussed by Chris Matthews and Eugene Robinson on Friday's Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Is it because there are people call in who are liberals, liberal constituents of NPR, who complain, How dare you have your guy playing ball with those people?

ROBINSON: It could be that. They say that he`s supposed to be a political analyst, that he does, you know, commentary and goes off the reservation when he`s on Fox. They`re uncomfortable with that. You know, who knows?

Consider, then, the possiblity that listeners of NPR, who also provide much of the station's funding and generally are left-of-center, have been increasingly displeased about Juan Williams. As the station became increasingly dissatisfied with Williams' dual role, so did many of their these listener/contributors, who let NPR know of their displeasure. NPR, in this scenario, acted on behalf of their customers as corporations are expected to, moving to "adjust their behavior accordingly," as, presumably, John Hood would put it. It's the free market at work, in the manner in which we have been lectured by conservatives such as Huckabee, DeMint, and Sarah Palin.

NPR did not move against Juan Williams because of their (minimal, indirect) public funding. Nor did it act out of some governmental impulse toward political correctness, Michelle Malkin's characteristic confusion notwithstanding. It looked at its customer base and decided: this guy, appearing regularly on the nation's premier conservative media outlet, has been expressing himself too freely. Move along- nothing to see here, only the operation of a non-governmental entity operating rationally in a competitive media market. The free enterprise system at work.

They're a little late to the game, the Republican right. Protesting the dismissal of an employee because the employer wants to rid itself of him isn't a habit of theirs. And neither will it become a habit- their outrage here is convenient and largely unprincipled. It is situational, not unlike Justice Scalia writing in Bush v. Gore: only in this case, no precedent being established, obey our decision and then forget about it.

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