Commentary

Free PBS

A version of this article appeared in the DC Examiner, August 18, 2005.

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee recently held a hearing on this year’s $500 million budget request for public broadcasting. I was invited to testify against funding, and the other four panelists all worked for public broadcasting and enthusiastically supported the funding.

So it was four tax recipients to one taxpayer. That sounds stacked, but it was actually more balanced than the average appropriations hearing. The average hearing is closer to 20 tax consumers for every representative of the taxpayers. The narrow 4 to 1 edge reflected the current controversy over bias in National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.

The battle over bias falls into familiar red-blue, liberal-conservative terms. Conservatives—including the current chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Tomlinson—complain that NPR and PBS tilt to the left. In response, activist groups on the left such as Moveon.org rush to PBS’s defense, more or less confirming the conservatives’ charge.

As a libertarian, I have an outsider’s perspective on both liberal and conservative bias. I’m sympathetic to some of public broadcasting’s biases, such as its tilt toward gay rights, freedom of expression, and social tolerance and its deep skepticism toward the religious right. And I share many of the cultural preferences of its programmers and audience, for theater, independent cinema, history, and the like.

Even so, I think it is undeniable that public broadcasting leans to the left. Take PBS’s primetime show “Now,” hosted until recently by Bill Moyers, the poster child for liberal bias. A report in Current, the newspaper of public broadcasting, showed that in six months “Now” broadcast 19 segments on the war in Iraq, only four of which “included anyone voicing support for the war….In fact, of the 75 segments over six months that treated controversial issues like the Iraq War, the state of the economy and the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics, only 13 included anyone who spoke against the thrust of the segment.”

Sometimes the bias is not quite so obvious. Rather than imbalance within each report, the bias is reflected in the choice of topics. A careful listener to NPR would notice a preponderance of reports on racism, sexism, and environmental destruction, but very few reports on the burden of taxes and regulation, or the unconstitutionality of most federal programs, or the way that state and federal governments increasingly abuse the rule of law in going after unpopular defendants such as tobacco companies and Wall Street executives.

Anyone who got all his news from NPR would never know that Americans of all races live longer, healthier, and in more comfort than ever before in history, or that the environment has been getting steadily cleaner.

In the past few weeks, as this issue has been debated, I’ve noted other examples. Take the long and glowing reviews of two leftist agitprop plays, one written by Robert Reich and performed on Cape Cod and another written by David Hare and performed in Los Angeles. And then there was the effusive report on Pete Seeger, the folksinger who was a member of the Communist Party, complete with a two-hour online concert, to launch the Fourth of July weekend.

The real problem is not liberal bias but the inevitability of bias. Any reporter or editor has to choose what’s important. It’s impossible to make such decisions without a framework, a perspective, a view of how the world works.

If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it’s the news and public affairs programming that informs Americans about government and its policies. When government brings us the news—with all the inevitable bias and spin—the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy. Journalists should not work for the government. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize news and public-affairs programming.

NPR and PBS have wildly enthusiastic audiences. Their greatest fundraising appeal ever would be one that began “The heartless and barbaric Republican Congress has cut off our funding…” It’s time to free NPR and PBS from politicians, and time to free taxpayers from supporting ideas they don’t like.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.