When former NPR executive Ron Schiller said that the organization would be better off in the long run without public funding, he was envisioning an editorial independence that can never really be achieved while NPR is on the public dole. That is not to say that the station's editorial judgment is compromised by its receiving taxpayer dollars. But by bringing taxpayer money into the mix, NPR is inevitably subjected to political considerations. And it should be. Taxpayers must have a say in how their money is spent.
Odds are, on the long list of causes to which Americans would like their tax dollars devoted, subversion of the American military and foreign policy establishment is nowhere to be found. And yet, through NPR, taxpayer dollars are going towards the publication of information released for the express purpose of undermining the American government.
By reporting on contents of the latest Wikileaks document drop, which released massive amounts of sensitive and classified information regarding U.S. terrorist detention policies, NPR has advanced the objectives of an overtly anti-American organization.
As I have written previously, Julian Assange's stated objective is to render the American diplomatic and military communities completely ineffective by forcing them to become ever-more opaque, even internally, and thus unable to properly function. Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz noted Assange's openness about that objective in a December column:
In 2006, Mr. Assange wrote a pair of essays, "State and Terrorist Conspiracies" and "Conspiracy as Governance." He sees the U.S. as an authoritarian conspiracy. "To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed," he writes. "Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate," he writes, and "pass it around the conspirators and then act on the result."
His central plan is that leaks will restrict the flow of information among officials—"conspirators" in his view—making government less effective. Or, as Mr. Assange puts it, "We can marginalize a conspiracy's ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to its environment. . . . An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself."
Berkeley blogger Aaron Bady last week posted a useful translation of these essays. He explains Mr. Assange's view this way: "While an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to 'think' as a system, to communicate with itself." Mr. Assange's idea is that with enough leaks, "the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller."…
Or as Mr. Assange told Time magazine last week, "It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society." If leaks cause U.S. officials to "lock down internally and to balkanize," they will "cease to be as efficient as they were."
Is Wikileaks's latest batch of documents newsworthy? Absolutely. And the decision to publish those documents or report on their contents by any other news organization is a matter of editorial judgment. It is solely the decision of New York Times, for instance, whether the New York Times will do so.
But NPR's decision, by virtue of its public funding, is not so clearly confined to the realm of private activity. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted the fact on Twitter Tuesday morning, writing: "Should US taxpayers fund the publishing of illegally obtained, classified docs? NPR apparently thinks so. I don’t."
Wikileaks made a strategic decision when it began releasing its trove of documents to do so through some of the world's major news outlets. The decisions by those outlets to relay the contents of those documents or, in some cases, post the actual documents online, were controversial. But they were those organizations' decisions to make. Private companies are free to use their resources as they see fit, assuming they do so within the confines of the law. If they wish to advance Wikileaks's political agenda by publishing the contents of classified documents, that is their prerogative.
NPR, on the other hand, is now acting as an intermediary for Wikileaks - as part of the organization's strategy for releasing documents that, it hopes, will undermine America's foreign policy - with the financial aid of the American taxpayer. So in effect, those taxpayers are helping to subsidize the subversion of their own government.
That should sound alarms in the minds of those taxpayers and the elected stewards of their money. And that, in turn, should demonstrate to NPR the pitfalls of running a news organization with public money. Effective reporting may be incompatible with public funding.
Were NPR devoid of taxpayer support, it would have every right to act as one of Wikileaks's many media mouthpieces - and to brave the legal challenges that might ensue. But it seems that forcing Americans to support, even indirectly, an organization hostile to their own country's interests crosses at least an ethical line, if not a legal one.