Efforts to defund public broadcasting have failed in the past because conservatives have been focusing on the wrong target. In the wake of the scandalous NPR firing, it is time for conservatives to switch targets.
Almost everything that can be said about the disgusting termination of Juan Williams has been said. Williams was a member of that lonely, dying breed: an honest liberal. His firing was not ideological, exactly. It was rather totalitarian. The creepy people who run NPR showed all the consistent thinking of slavish Stalinist ciphers during the worst days of the Great Purge. What about the "due process" shown to Juan Williams, something that leftists always insist that terrorists and welfare queens must be granted? It was contemptuously ignored by NPR. How could these NPR bosses "know" that "nothing" Williams could produce would change their decision? What would NPR have said about an employment law case involving the termination of a black man by a gaggle of white people at an oil company, without even the pretense of a pre-termination hearing?
The real issue, now, is not whether NPR is managed by smug, nasty, bigots -- it is -- but rather what we can do about the problem. Certainly conservatives should push to end all federal funding of NPR, but direct federal appropriations are only a small part of NPR funding. Moreover, NPR is only the tip of the iceberg in ideological bigotry in public funding for broadcasting. While what conservatives ought to do is seek an end to all federal funding for all public television and public radio (which will take years to accomplish), conservatives should insist, with the loudest, most explicit and unmovable resolve, that all public broadcasting at the state government level must carry only programming which adheres to very direct standards. This could be done by next spring. No Obama veto, no Senate filibuster, no oceans of federal bureaucratic minutia -- just action.
This is the Achilles heel of national public broadcasting: it operates through fifty different state broadcasting systems, all of which, in one form or another, are creatures of state government. Although the national patchwork of systems varies from state to state, all are ultimately within the control of state government. Republicans in control of state governments next year will be able to insist that state broadcasting systems in their state refrain from broadcasting programming which violates certain guidelines. (The process varies from state to state. Many state systems operate from state academic institutions, but all, ultimately, are controlled by state elected officials.)
What might these standards be? Why not adopt uniform state laws, in all the states that Republicans control, to require that any organization that uses state public radio or television to broadcast news, entertainment -- anything, really -- must have ideological balance? Why not prohibit any state public radio or television network from providing any funding to any organization which does not provide for balance? Balance, of course, would not mean each program or every commentator must be neutral, but it would mean that if a leftist point of view is presented in one documentary, then a conservative point of view must be presented in another documentary.
How much of America would this affect? Well, this is a broad stretch of America, from the Rocky Mountains through the Great Plains and into the South, which would include, more or less, half of the nation, which would suddenly stop carrying "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" -- which would, instead, carry programming cautiously balanced. NPR would lose a big chunk of its funding. Beyond that, PBS would move quickly to keep state television systems from being forced to leave the PBS system.
State broadcasting systems are the Achilles heel of NPR and also of PBS. Most of these state systems, particularly in conservative parts of America, are very sensitive to charges of bias or offensiveness. Not only can state governments regulate their operations by law -- in some states, like Mississippi, the governor appoints members of the governing board -- and reduce direct state funding, but these are the same stations who go every year to ordinary citizens and ask for donations. These marathon fundraisers overtly try to "sell" public broadcasting to ordinary citizens. Beyond even that, public broadcasting often accepts contributions from private companies, who then get a tiny plug on programs broadcast. This is intended to invite public goodwill. If consumers began writing to companies asking why this private corporation is supporting the bad folks who fired Juan Williams, then corporate donors could dry up very fast indeed.
The key to all of this is to operate where politicians are most sensitive to popular opinion, where the government pressured to do what is right has the power to act fast (i.e. not the federal government, full of a thousand obstructions), where private contributions are most vital, where corporate donors wish strongly to curry local support with their contributions, and where activists, like Tea Party groups, can rally huge numbers of citizens who are watching every single step that their state government elected officials are taking to address the abuses of national public broadcasting.
There will be a bevy of new Republican governors who will win election next week. The shrews of NPR have dropped a golden issue in the laps of Republicans in state government. If Democrats in state government try to block this reform, then Republicans should propose this reform in a state ballot question. Who best to remind voters about what is involved than Juan Williams? Picture him testifying in state legislative committees as a lifelong Democrat, a liberal, and a black man interested in racial harmony. Picture him addressing enthusiastically supportive Tea Party rallies in state capitals across the nation, and the drones of leftism sitting at home watching their empire crumble.