If You Love Something, Set It Free: A Case for Defunding Public Broadcasting

Available today is my new policy analysis, “If You Love Something, Set it Free: A Case for Defunding Public Broadcasting.” As a long-time fan of public broadcasting, particularly NPR, it has often irked me that public broadcasting spends so much time embroiled in political battles. The recent kerfuffles over Juan Williams’s controversial dismissal from NPR and the sting videos of NPR executives making derogatory remarks about the Tea Party were only the latest episodes in a long line of political squabbles that goes back to the very beginning, 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act.

From the standpoint of politicians, however, political fights over public broadcasting’s content are not bugs, they’re features. Just as “war is the health of the state,” politicians view a politically controlled, sufficiently chastened public broadcasting system as a healthy one. During the debates over the Public Broadcasting Act, Sen. Norris Cotton (R-N.H.) explained how politicians would approach public broadcasting:

If this bill becomes law, … and if, as time goes on, we have occasion to feel that there is a slanting, a bias, or an injustice, we instantly and immediately can do something about it. First, we can make very uncomfortable, and give a very unhappy experience to, the directors of the corporation. Second, we can shut down some of their activities in the Appropriations Committee and in the appropriating process of Congress … . The Corporation is much more readily accessible … to the Congress, if it is desired to correct any injustice or bias which might appear.

As Senator Cotton’s remarks show, from the very beginning public broadcasting was intended to be politicized. In fact, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was partly created to provide a politically controlled voice in the marketplace of ideas.

Prior to the advent of government funding, noncommercial, education television thrived, with National Educational Television (NET) being the most famous. In the mid-to-late 60s, NET emerged as a strong counter-cultural voice. It challenged America’s role in Vietnam, it produced scathing documentaries about poverty, and it attacked members of Congress with ties to big banking. In order to maintain its independence from political influence, NET often refused federal funding.

With the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, President Johnson created a system that would use politically influenced funding to challenge NET’s iconoclastic programming. Later, President Nixon took keen interest in whether “anti-administration” broadcasts were broadcast either on NET (which took some federal money after the CPB was created), or the fledgling PBS. At one point, Nixon’s anger at unfriendly broadcasters caused him to veto funding to the CPB (Congress overrode the veto).

Forty years later, public broadcasting still works under the same system. There is, however, one marked exception. Both PBS and NPR have excelled at lowering their government dependency by finding non-governmental sources of money, primarily in the form of listener fund drives, foundations, and corporate underwriting. As a percentage of their operating budgets, the size of the federal contribution to public broadcasting is quite small, around 15%. As a percentage of the total federal budget, the ~$440 million for public broadcasting is little more than a rounding error.

So why should we even care about public broadcasting in this era of trillion-dollar deficits? Because the content of public broadcasting has always been and will always be significant to Americans. Public broadcasting carries the government’s imprimatur, and those who feel left out of programming are more than simply upset at not being heard; they have a valid object on principle to not being included in the “national message.” Conservatives most often raise this challenge, but similar complaints also come from the left-wing Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle-East Reporting (CAMERA), and others.

Freeing public broadcasting from federal funding would foreclose the ability of these groups and others to object on principle to public broadcasting’s content. Freedom from federal funding would allow public broadcasters to air edgy programming, controversial stories, and more hard-hitting critiques of the current administration’s policies. Finally, freedom from federal funding would not mean that PBS and NPR become corporate controlled. Instead, they would simply become noncommercial, nonprofit entities doing more of what they already do very well: raise money through donations. A five-year defunding period would allow for the needed internal changes, as well as set up the biggest fundraising event in public/noncommercial broadcasting’s history.

In short, if you love something, set it free.