Policy Analysis No. 697

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

Public broadcasting has been in critics’ crosshairs since its creation in 1967. Assailed from all sides with allegations of bias, charges of political influence, and threats to defund their operations, public broadcasters have responded with everything from outright denial to personnel changes, but never have they squarely faced the fundamental problem: government-funded media companies are inherently problematic and impossible to reconcile with either the First Amendment or a government of constitutionally limited powers.

The Constitution does not give Congress the power to create media companies, and we should heed the Founders’ wisdom on this matter. In fact, consistent with that wisdom, before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created, nonprofit, noncommercial media stations enjoyed a vibrant existence, remaining free to criticize current policies and exhibit whatever bias they wished. Yet today the taxpayer contribution to public broadcasting, although relatively small, clearly influences the decisions of public broadcasting officials.

In fact, public broadcasting suffers the main downside of public funding—political influence and control—yet enjoys little of the upside—a significant taxpayer contribution that would relieve it of the need to seek corporate underwriting and listener donations. But the limited taxpayer funding also shows that defunding can be relatively painless. Public broadcasting not only can survive on its own, it can thrive—and be free.

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Trevor Burrus is a legal associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.