Originally published: November 1, 2010
Last updated: November 1, 2010 - 3:05pm
[Commentary] National Public Radio's decision to fire news analyst Juan Williams after he made controversial comments on Fox News about Muslims has become - for some Republican lawmakers, at least -- a teachable moment. NPR, House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner (R-Ohio) said recently, is a "left-wing radio network" and should be stripped of federal funding. Eric Cantor, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Bill O'Reilly and other conservative voices have issued similar calls.
The Williams imbroglio is teachable, but its lessons actually point in the opposite direction: America's public media system, including NPR, requires more funding, not less. In particular, the funding should come from commercial broadcasters that profit from their licensed use of scarce public airwaves -- and that would include News Corp., the parent of Fox News. In this time of niche publications and cable networks that thrive on ideological anger, we should be seeking to strengthen NPR's role as a convener of the public square, a demagogue-free zone where all political and social groups - including conservatives and others opposed to federal funding of public media - should be welcome on equal terms. Williams's firing is a distraction from the media policy choices facing the country, but it should not be dismissed as merely another episode of Fox News-inspired theater.
The incident has no doubt reminded NPR's leaders that the network's growing importance requires extraordinary care about perceptions of political bias. Still, during the next several years, the country will confront broader questions about the future health of public media and its decades-old, congressionally mandated mission to serve the public interest. By fixing the public interest obligation system of the Communications Acts, we have the means to modernize our public media and, by doing so, to reinforce a calm, nonpartisan center in American democracy.
[Coll is president of the New America Foundation.]
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