Was this in the pledge?

Editor’s note: Yes, I realize this is way behind the news cycle…but I wrote it, then had to set it aside for a while. I spent a lot of time on it and I don’t want it to go to waste. Humor me, please.

With crystal clear focus and laser precision, the Republican party made sure we knew it was gonna be different this time.

It’s hard to believe it was just six months ago when the Grand Old Party unveiled its “Pledge To America,” a 21-page document that outlined the its governing agenda. Just 11 grafs in, it’s spelled out in simple language: “The need for urgent action to repair our economy and reclaim our government for the people cannot be overstated.”

That, apparently, includes taking away funding for public broadcasting. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure recently that would prevent stations from buying programming from National Public Radio – or any other source – with the $22 million they receive from the federal government.

So…is that repairing our economy? Or does that reclaim the government?

It’s interesting to see a party that blamed, in part, a “polarizing political environment” for “fraying the bonds among our people and blurring our sense of national purpose” spend so much time passing bills that they know will never pass the Senate, let alone get signed by President Obama. This measure, just like “repealing” the Affordable Health Care Act, is nothing more than red meat for the conservative base, designed to stir them up as we approach the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

One could try to declare this a great victory for fiscal conservatives, but look at that figure a few grafs up: $22 million. Barely a dent in the federal budget. No less than Rep. Ron Paul took to the house floor to criticize the move, saying:

“The very most they might save is $10 million, and that’s their claim to fame for slashing the budget. At the same time they won’t consider for a minute cutting a real, significant amount of money. All empires end for fiscal reasons, because they spread themselves too far around the world – and that’s what we’re facing.”

“That’s their claim to face for slashing the budget.” This is the root of what the Republicans are doing. They are returning to this focus on divisive wedge issues that helped drive me from the party in the first place. The attempt to cut funding from Planned Parenthood was just the beginning.

Public broadcasting, specifically NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, have long been conservative targets, considered to be far too liberal. The 228 Republicans who passed this measure will indeed brag to their constituents about cutting the budget while sticking it to the liberal elite at the same time. They may have accomplished neither.

Mike Durbin, the author of Principled Thoughts, asked me “If NPR is so great, how come it can’t be privately funded”? That, I told him, was the wrong question…and not just because NPR gets only about $5.4 million per year from the federal government. The majority of its $65 million budget comes from local stations, which pay for the programming (you’ve heard the pledge drives…I know you have). So it’s entirely possible that, minus this money, NPR will survive. But again, this is the wrong question.

Here’s the right question: Why does the United States need public, non-commercial, news broadcasting and reporting? It was answered in a far more eloquent manner than I could achieve in the pages of The Washington Post by Leonard Downie, Jr., a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor at The Post. It’s well worth a read. Here’s a key snippet:

“…equally important to us is local news coverage, which has been even more severely weakened by shrunken reporting staffs and ambitions at newspapers and commercial stations in too many cities and towns. We have long believed that Americans benefit when powerful institutions and important issues in their lives are scrutinized by good reporters on their behalf. Yet this kind of ambitious local news coverage by commercial media has diminished in community after community in recent years.”

I have a clear bias here. Every paycheck I ever collected as a sports editor came from a community publication. While national and regional news organizations do wonderful things, there is no replacing what local, feet-on-the-ground, immersed-in-the-community reporting can offer a town of any size. And no group is better prepared to than a group that doesn’t have to rely on advertising revenue to survive. Those are the journalists who are able to take risks, to go after stories that might make advertisers or members of the local government uncomfortable.

James Fallows wrote a piece on “Why NPR Matters” back during the Juan Williams debacle, well before this bill was introduced. It’s timely now, though, as he points out:

“In their current anti-NPR initiative, Fox and the Republicans would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced. NPR, like the New York Times, has an ombudsman. Does Fox? [I think the answer is No.]”

But perhaps my whole rant here is overthinking things a bit. This is not a serious bill introduced by the Republicans. They have to know – like repealing health care reform – it will never make it through the Senate or get signed by the president. They don’t necessarily want it to, though. This is a chance to stir up partisan feelings in preparation for the 2012 elections. Plain and simple. And it’s exactly the kind of thing they pledged to us they wouldn’t do. They are just continuing to fray the bonds among our people and blur our sense of national purpose.

And yes, Michael, I know you favor cutting all federal funding to private organizations. I know this won’t sway you. But this is my honest answer.