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Dead Tree Alert: The NPR Hit Job; Plus, Congress Votes to (Not Really) Cut Funds

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Illustration by Paul Sahre for TIME

When I planned to write my print TIME column this week on NPR and the James O’Keefe tapes, I was concerned that public radio might no longer be in the news by the end of the week. Silly me!

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to cut off federal funding to NPR. Here’s what the vote does not mean: that Congress will cut off funding to NPR. First, there’s the open secret that the bill would never get past the Senate, where Republican senators like Saxby Chambliss have expressed support for public broadcasting. Second, the theoretical bill would stop direct federal funding to NPR—of which there is hardly any.

Most federal money goes to local stations. The bill does not eliminate this money either. Instead, it forbids them to spend it on national programming (that’s how they get NPR shows, their most popular and pledge-generating programs). But they can evidently spending it on other things, freeing up at least some money for NPR spending. So: almost no money saved, if the bill were going to become law, which it won’t. But a lot of Congresspeople got to make speeches to rile up their base.

Now the column: As I wrote here earlier, having seen the full two-hour video, a couple things seemed clear. One, fundraiser Ron Schiller, on undoctored video, made political statements against conservatives while on business for NPR that would have embarrassed an already beleaguered network and gotten him canned (were he not already leaving) in any case. Two, the video sting was a hit job full of hilariously leading questions (e.g., how “tempting” it must be to slant coverage to get Obama re-elected, which Schiller deflected) and was then edited, often misleadingly, to make a political document aimed at generating as much outrage against public broadcasting as possible.

The reactions I’ve gotten over the past week suggest people want to see just one or the other of those two things. Either O’Keefe’s video is an utter lie, and therefore Schiller is totally exonerated; or Schiller was totally out of line, and therefore anything O’Keefe did to sweeten up the presentation to make sure everyone got the right message was irrelevant. You can read my much-longer post on this, but I say: just because a suspect is guilty doesn’t mean that a cop who tampers with the evidence to convict him is not a dirty cop.

But whatever: whether Schiller or O’Keefe is History’s Greatest Monster—what does the issue of whether government should pay for media have to do with what some non-news guy says at lunch? Nothing. If you want to critique NPR as biased, you could, say, criticize actual examples of its news coverage—which I heard very little of in Congress yesterday amid numerous references to the video. (Which is exactly why O’Keefe would want to make the edit of his video as outrageous as possible: a hot-button gotcha video, with fake Muslims and a snooty guy at a fancy restaurant looking down on Tea Partiers, has a lot more gut-level influence on public debate than NPR’s actual content.)

The thing is, there are a lot of good debates to be had about public broadcasting. Maybe government involvement inevitably polticizes media, and that’s a good reason to get Washington out of the broadcasting business. Maybe there are creative ways to restructure public broadcasting’s fundraising and support system: a national private-donation pool, say, to fund the small rural stations that don’t have access to big-money donors and that Democrats and Republicans say they don’t want to go out of business. (Conservatives and swing voters in their districts listen to NPR and watch PBS, one reason why Congressmen are more comfortable voting to defund when they know it won’t actually happen.) If there’s a way to pull in private dollars so small stations don’t go out of business while dropping government support, I’d like to do it—and this past week is the perfect example of why.

There are also a few other issues to worry about, as GOP Rep. Ron Paul noted yesterday:

There are a lot of good arguments to be had—and we’re not having any of them right now. Isn’t it about time we stopped funding the Congressional demagoguery business?