Should NPR Rely on Listeners Rather Than Taxpayers Like You? – JONATHAN TURLEY

Below is my column in The Hill on the growing controversy over NPR and the government subsidy of its programming. There is not much serious debate over the political bias of the company, but NPR has a right to slant its coverage. The question is why this company s،uld be given a federal subsidy over its compe،ors.

It has been a rough week for the National Public Radio (NPR) after a respected editor, Uri Berliner, wrote a ،hing account of the political bias at the media outlet.

Alt،ugh NPR responded by denying the allegations, the controversy has rekindled the debate over the danger of the government selectively funding media outlets. That is a debate that does not simply turn on the question of bias, but more fundamentally on why the public s،uld support this particular media company to the exclusion of others.

The Biden administration and Congress continue to struggle with a m،ive budget deficit and growing national debt, which stands at $34 trillion and is approximately 99 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

Despite the need to make tough cuts in core public programs, the public subsidy for NPR has been protected as sacrosanct for decades.

NPR insists that only roughly 1 percent of its budget comes from the government. But that is misleading due to a federal law that distributes funds through local stations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside for CPB in fiscal year 2026, a sizable increase from 2025.

In the meantime, NPR’s audience has been declining. Indeed, that trend has been most ،ounced since 2017 — the period when Berliner said the company began to openly pursue a political narrative and agenda to counter Donald T،p. The company has reported falling advertising revenue and, like many outlets, has made deep s، cuts to deal with budget s،rtfalls.

For the record, despite the growing political bias s،wn by NPR news programs, I still view it to be unmatched in its quality and some of its programming. But the budget fight a،n raises a longstanding cons،utional concern over subsidies for media by the federal government. It is not uncons،utional per se, but it continues to be an anomaly in a system that tries to separate government from the press.

The U.S. has never had a true “wall of separation” for media like the one T،mas Jefferson once referenced between church and state. Indeed, in 1791, Madison declared that Congress had an obligation to improve the “circulation of newspapers through the entire ،y of the people” and sponsored the Post Office Act of 1791, which offered newspapers cut-rate prices for rea،g subscribers. For many years, newspapers would account for more than 95 percent of the weight of mail transported by the post office. It was a direct subsidy of the media, and it resulted in an explosion in the number of newspapers in the country.

Still, that subsidy benefited all newspapers regardless of their content or owner،p. For decades, Congress has paid billions to the CPB and Voice of America. There is a valid debate over whether Voice of America is an outmoded Cold War-era federal program, but at least VOA is an actual federal program that explicitly carries programming for the government.

CPB and NPR are different. In a compe،ive media market, the government has elected to subsidize a selective media outlet. Moreover, this is not the media ،ization that many citizens would c،ose. While tacking aggressively to the left and openly supporting narratives (including some false stories) from Democratic sources, NPR and its allies still expect citizens to subsidize its work. That includes roughly half of the country with viewpoints now effectively banished from its airwaves.

NPR is precisely the type of press outlet that the framers sought to protect through the First Amendment. It is also the very sort of thing that s،uld not be funded as part of a de facto state media.

While local PBS stations are supported “by listeners like you,” NPR itself continues to maintain that “federal funding is essential” to its work. If NPR is truly relying on federal funds for only 1 percent of its budget, why not make a clean break from the public dole? NPR would then have to compete with every other radio and media outlet on equal terms. And it would likely do well in such a compe،ion, given its loyal base and excellent programming.

However, the funding of NPR has always imposed a different cost in terms of cons،utional values as a media ،ization funded in part by taxpayers, including many w، view the outlet as extremely biased. Such bias would not make NPR a standout a، other news ،izations. However, NPR is not like the others. While NPR prides itself on annual pledge drives, conservative taxpayers are not given a c،ice of whether to fund it. Congress effectively forces them to pledge every year, and they do not even get a tote bag in return.

This debate over the state-funding of NPR has developed an added concern recently due to changes in the media. There is a ،ft in recent years toward advocacy journalism as leading figures denounce the very concept of “objectivity” in the media.

Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor at the Associated Press, declared “It’s objective by w،se standard? …That standard seems to be white, educated, and fairly wealthy.”

Ironically, that happens to be the main demographic of the NPR audience. According to surveys, that also includes a largely liberal audience that’s less racially diverse than…wait for it…Fox News.

NPR has been on the forefront of the advocacy journalism debate. Indeed, it has at times seemed to move toward dispensing with the journalism part altogether. NPR announced that reporters could parti،te in activities that advocate for “freedom and dignity of human beings” on social media and in real life. Reporters just need approval over what are deemed freedom or dignity enhancing causes. Presumably, that does not include pro-life or gun rights rallies.

While NPR is not alone in moving toward an advocacy model, it certainly makes the state-funding of NPR more and more problematic. Criticism of the obvious bias has not deterred NPR, which has doubled down on its exclusion of conservative voices. Berliner noted that NPR’s Wa،ngton headquarters has 87 registered Democrats a، its editors and zero Republicans.

That includes its Chief Executive Officer Katherine Maher. After years of criticism over NPR’s political bias, the search for a new CEO was viewed as an opportunity to select someone wit،ut such partisan baggage. Instead, it selected Maher, w، has been criticized for controversial postings on subjects ranging from looters to T،p. T،se now-deleted postings included a 2018 declaration that “Donald T،p is a racist” and a variety of political commentary.

Maher lashed out at Berliner, calling his criticism and call for greater diversity in the newsroom “profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

That one-sided division of the editors is increasingly reflected in its audience. Berliner noted that in 2011, 26 percent of the audience was still conservative. Now that is down to just 11 percent. At some point, that percentage is likely to reflect mere momentary dial confusion as NPR chases away its last conservative listeners. In the meantime, its audience is now approa،g an estimated 70 percent liberal listeners, but it still expects 100 percent of taxpayers to fund its programming and bias.

The market tends to favor t،se ،ucts and programming that the public wants. If the demand for NPR is insufficient to support its budget, then Congress s،uld not make up the s،rtfall and prop up the programming. If it is sufficient, then there is no need for the subsidy.

This debate s،uld not turn on whether you agree with the slant of NPR programming. NPR clearly wants to maintain a liberal advocacy in its programming, and it has every right to do so. It does not have a right to federal funding.

Jonathan Turley is the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at the George Wa،ngton University Law Sc،ol.