“Defund NPR": As PBS and NPR exit Twitter, which has more value to taxpayers? Hint: not the bird app

Elon Musk's slapdash decision to label PBS and NPR as "government-funded" isn't just inaccurate, it's risky

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 13, 2023 7:00PM (EDT)

A group of public broadcasting supporters gathers in the Hart Senate Office building to lobby lawmakers to keep funding the PBS and NPR on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
A group of public broadcasting supporters gathers in the Hart Senate Office building to lobby lawmakers to keep funding the PBS and NPR on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 (Bill Clark/Roll Call)

Ever notice how the loudest voices calling for the defunding of PBS and NPR usually belong to people who could have most benefited from public broadcasting's myriad contributions to early education, literacy and the promotion of critical thinking?

This is not expressly a dig at Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. who, among her many great achievements, is famous for opining "If you vote for gun control, you are not on the side of Ameirca [sic]" and "Im[p]each Biden." The GOP lawmaker is merely one conservative voice reacting to the Public Broadcasting Service's and National Public Radio's announced intention to abandon Twitter.

NPR announced its decision to stop posting to its 52 official Twitter feeds on Wednesday, becoming the first major news organization to do so. PBS' final tweet from its main account was posted Saturday, April 8. Each organization suspended activity on the platform following Twitter CEO Elon Musk's decision to apply an inaccurate "government-funded media" label to their main accounts. The @NPR Twitter account has 8.8 million followers. @PBS has 2.2 million.

Twitter also slapped that tag on the BBC but changed its description to "publicly funded media" after the British broadcaster pointed out that it has always been independent and funded by the British public through a license fee.

Musk also told the BBC in an email that he's a big fan: "I follow BBC news on Twitter, because I think it is among the least biased," the Guardian quotes him as saying.

To give you a sense of how haphazardly this standard has been applied, the label doesn't appear on the main Twitter accounts for PBS NewsHour, NPR Politics, the NPR science desk, or any other affiliated accounts one would think would be most ripe for accusations of bias.

On Wednesday when NPR's tech reporter Bobby Allyn emailed Twitter for a response to its decision to quit Twitter, Musk chose not to reply to the email but to post his response on the platform he owns: "Defund @NPR," he tweeted.

PBS' decision to join NPR's departure prompted Boebert to dutifully chirp, "PBS and NPR both have quit Twitter because they were labeled as government-funded media. I've got a solution – let's defund both of them so they won't have the label and can continue using Twitter happily!"

Very few media organizations and the people who work for them use Twitter happily anymore. As Allyn pointed out, the ROI may not be worth the headache. "NPR's analytics show that less than 2% of our traffic comes from Twitter," he posted on Wednesday. "It's not a surprise to people who work in media, but even before the labeling saga, there was a pretty strong business case that the game wasn't worth the candle."

In polls, both organizations are consistently ranked as trustworthy among Democrats and Republicans. (That said, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that NPR and New York Times have a much higher appeal to Americans under the age of 50.)

Of course, none of this is a response to journalistic bias or misused taxpayer funds. It's entirely related to Musk's need to feed his ego and his troll army.

The controversy began last week when Twitter initially (and again, erroneously) labeled PBS and NPR as "U.S. state-affiliated media" on Tuesday, April 4, applying to them the same tag it associates with actual state-run propaganda outlets such as China's Xinhua News and Russia's RT. It did this without warning or consulting NPR, blindsiding its leadership.

On April 5, NPR president John Lansing posted a statement on Twitter, which reads in part, "Member stations are supported by millions of listeners who depend on us for the independent, fact-based journalism we provide. NPR stands for freedom of speech and holding the powerful accountable. It is unacceptable for Twitter to label us this way. A vigorous, vibrant free press is essential to the health of our democracy." 

The "government-funded media" designation replaced the tag on Saturday, representing what Twitter might characterize as a conciliatory walk-back but, as leadership from both outlets point out, remains inaccurate.

"Twitter's simplistic label leaves the inaccurate impression that PBS is wholly funded by the federal government," PBS said in a statement provided to Salon. "PBS is primarily funded by the public and philanthropic organizations, with only a small portion of our funding coming from entities affiliated with government."

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik echoes this in his coverage of the decision, "NPR is a private, nonprofit company with editorial independence. It receives less than 1 percent of its $300 million annual budget from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

Fortunately, for the moment, this social media posturing hasn't resulted in any official proposals being introduced in Congress. But as Salon has written previously, whenever Republicans take power in Congress or the White House, public broadcasters have reason to worry.

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger reiterated this in January during a Television Critics Association press conference. In 2017 the Trump administration put forth a federal budget that would have eliminated the majority of funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which contributes funding to both PBS and public radio as well as local stations. 

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger attends the PBS 2023 TCA Winter Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 16, 2023 (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Contrary to the way conservatives paint the CPB in their efforts to politicize it, the CPB is not a government organization but a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

Among the many declarations spelled out in this act are that it is in the public's interest to "[develop] programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities," and "It is in the public interest for the Federal Government to ensure that all citizens of the United States have access to public telecommunications services through all appropriate available telecommunications distribution technologies."

Most pertinent to Twitter's flawed argument, however, is that the act explained the creation of the CPB "to facilitate the development of public telecommunications and" – emphasis ours – "to afford maximum protection from extraneous interference and control."

A shorter way of putting this is that the organizations benefitting from CPB funding are editorially independent.

In its mission statement, the CPB also adds: "CPB does not produce programming and does not own, operate or control any public broadcasting stations. Additionally, CPB, PBS, and NPR are independent of each other and of local public television and radio stations."

Most of the funding public broadcasting receives from Congress goes directly to PBS and NPR member stations in hundreds of markets across the country. In many cities, these stations represent the last bastions of independent regional media dedicated to covering local issues.

The greatest beneficiaries from federal funding are stations serving rural areas – places that tend to vote Republican – where access to broadband, satellite and cable is still inadequate and many residents are lower income.

In 2017 Kerger cited a member station in Alaska as an example. Federal funding makes up around 50 percent of their budget, she said. Pulling its federal funds would have thrown such a station into crisis and eliminated an important news and information source in that community.

That threat didn't bother five far right-wing North Dakota state senators who, in February of this year, voted to eliminate $2.9 million from Gov. Doug Burgum's budget that was earmarked for Prairie Public Broadcasting. According to a column in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, $1.7 million of that total was requested to fund a nefarious liberal plot to repair transmitters in North Dakota. Burgum, we should mention, is also a Republican.

It is important to spell this out not simply for the conservatives who enjoy targeting public media but for others who may support it but can't adequately defend it with hard statistics. All the data cited here is gleaned from reports that are readily available to the public.

When a major social media platform like Twitter falsely describes such organizations as "state-run" or "government-funded," that doesn't merely erode the public's trust in their reporting. As the Committee to Protect Journalists' program director Carlos Martínez de la Serna pointed out, it "could pose risks for journalists reporting from areas where suggestions of government affiliation have negative connotations."

And yet, an attempt to grapple with the ramifications of NPR and PBS leaving Twitter in the all-too-typical debate between a libertarian and a liberal that ran on The Hill's YouTube channel nearly made me headbutt my office wall. Not because of the libertarian's views, which have been parroted by many others before him, but because the lefty offered little information as to how public media works and who reaps the greatest benefit.

To be clear, that would be people who can't afford monthly subscriptions to Max and Disney+ and don't have adequate broadband access. PBS and NPR are free and available to anyone who has a radio or a TV with an antenna.

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Of course, America could adopt the BBC model, in which U.K. households pay a fee set by the government, which currently sit at £159 per year (or around $199 U.S.) to fund the corporation's output.

In contrast, the Public Broadcasting Service's annual cost to the American taxpayer is $1.40 per citizen. That's one dollar and 40 cents – not per day, week, or month. For the whole year.

PBS is forward-funded, with a $475 million allocation from the CPB for 2023 already in place, and another $525 million pending for 2024.

Meanwhile, a 2015 Los Angeles Times report found Musk's companies, including Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and SpaceX, had by that time received $4.9 billion in government subsidies. Remember, that number is nearly 10 years old. More recently, in 2022, the Federal Communications Commission blocked an $885.5 million broadband funding grant to SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service.

The public has consistently stood up to defend PBS whenever it is threatened, not defund it. One doubts many will do the same for Musk if NPR's and PBS' Twitter exit marks the start of a broader trend.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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