Getting NPR and PBS
Off Taxpayer Crack
by Terry Michael | March 11, 2011
As one who founded (22 years ago) and continues to operate a journalism-related non-profit/501(c)(3), I offer this commentary and some suggestions with regard to the NPR fund-raising debacle and the continuing debate over taxpayer funding of "public" broadcasting. I do so as an admirer of great reporting by dedicated journalists at both NPR and PBS, and their local stations.
Let me begin by observing and commenting on what an NPR spokeswoman had to say about a fund-raising employee (Betsy Liley, NPR's senior director of institutional giving), who suggested the corporation might shield a donor with anonymity:
An NPR spokeswoman, Anna Christopher, had no comment on the phone recording. But she said: "All donations, anonymous and named, are reported to the IRS. NPR complies fully with all tax and financial disclosure regulations."
Those are weasel words. I know them when I see them, having spent 16 years as a political press secretary.
Running a 501(c)(3), I am familiar with filing Form 990's. I've spent countless hours filling them out for over two decades. We list our donors over $5,000--names, addresses and amounts--on Schedule B of the Form 990--but the IRS does not make that public! When we post a copy of WCPJ's Form 990 on our web site, we voluntarily include the Schedule B...
...because we believe in full transparency. For two decades, we have made complete PUBLIC reports of every single donation and every single expenditure, by line-item. That should be REQUIRED BY LAW for all organizations that claim tax exemptions, and particularly by those to which donors can make tax deductible gifts. Over the last 22 years, several individual donors have asked that their names not be released by WCPJ. In each case, the gift was $500 or less, and we listed the amount with the word "Anonymous" in our regular reports of gifts, making the judgment that the donor either didn't want to be solicited by others, or just didn't want to brag about his giving. In no case have we ever accepted an anonymous gift from an institution.
The Washington Center for Politics & Journalism has never sought a government grant and never will, as long as I lead it. We (I) do it the old-fashioned way, begging benefactors to give money if they believe in our mission. And then we let everyone decide whether a gift or an expenditure compromises that mission.
With that background, here are my suggestions to NPR, PBS, CPB, et al......
(1) Wean yourselves off taxpayer crack. Tell the politicians who give you government grants that doing so compromises your ability to cover them objectively. You would never accept politicians making grants to The Washington Post, so why should you get them? Ask legislators and presidents to phase out federal funding for all "public broadcasting" over the next three years, which will give you a reasonable amount of time to come down from your addiction.
(2) End the fiction that "support provided by" is not advertising. That is a euphemism, which allows your benefactors to hide the amounts of their donations in the secret part of your Form 990 filings. Accept advertising, but publicly disclose every cent you get from advertisers, just as your reporters expect politicians to do so, when they file their FEC reports on campaign contributions. Your listeners and viewers can then decide for themselves whether your reporting has been compromised by your benefactors. That transparency occurs everyday in the profit-making newspaper and magazine business, when a reader can decide for himself whether The New York Times or Newsweek is being influenced by money it gets from advertisers who appear right next to news, analysis and opinion reports.
(3) Continue to operate as non-profits, if you must. You can do that and still take money from advertisers, as well as donors. Doing so frees you from that awful pressure of having to make a profit by satisfying customers--though a lot of good profit-making newspapers and broadcast networks still deliver excellent reporting to their customers, despite seeking that filthy lucre.
Call this Terry Michael's three-step program for ending the addictions of "public" broadcasting.