Defund PBS

June 27, 2005 • Commentary
A version of this article appeared in the Baltimore Sun, June 27, 2005.

Congressional Republicans have proposed to cut the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds public radio and television stations. After having their fun, they have agreed to restore most of the money and dropped their threat to eventually phase out all taxpayer funding. But they shouldn’t back down. In fact, they should finish the job: End all taxpayer funding for government broadcasting stations, and let them compete in the marketplace like other broadcasters.

In a 500‐​channel world, why do the taxpayers need to subsidize one more channel? Defenders of National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System tell us it’s because we need “independent journalism.” But can we really expect to get truly independent journalism from a government‐​funded network?

It’s time to establish the separation of news and state. Journalists should not work for the government. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize news and public‐​affairs programming.

Tax‐​funded broadcasters are up in arms these days over what they see as political interference from the Bush administration. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the Bush‐​appointed chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has proposed to make a Republican activist president and CEO of the CPB. Like many Republicans, he has also complained about liberal bias at PBS and NPR, both of which receive funding from CPB.

Public opinion polls commissioned by PBS have found that most Americans don’t perceive tax‐​funded radio and television as politically biased. Of course, the most effective bias is bias that the listener doesn’t perceive. That can be the subtle use of adjectives or frameworks — for instance, a report that “Congress has failed to pass a health care bill” clearly leaves the impression that a health care bill is a good thing, and Congress has “failed” a test. Compare that to language like “Congress turned back a Republican effort to cut taxes for the wealthy.” There the listener is clearly being told that something bad almost happened, but Congress “turned back” the threat.

A careful listener to NPR would notice a preponderance of reports on racism, sexism, and environmental destruction. David Fanning, executive producer of “Frontline,” PBS’s documentary series, responds to questions of bias by saying, “We ask hard questions to people in power. That’s anathema to some people in Washington these days.” But it seems safe to say that there has never been a “Frontline” documentary on the burden of taxes, or the number of people who have died because federal regulations keep drugs off the market, or the way that state governments have abused the law in their pursuit of tobacco companies, or the number of people who use guns to prevent crime. Those “hard questions” just don’t occur to liberal journalists.

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

One dirty little secret that NPR and PBS don’t like to acknowledge in public debate is the wealth of their listeners and viewers. But they’re happy to tell advertisers — oops, I mean sponsors — about the affluent audience they’re reaching. A few years ago NPR enthusiastically told advertisers that its listeners are 66 percent wealthier than the average American, three times as likely to be college graduates, and 150 percent more likely to be professionals or managers. Tax‐​funded broadcasting, like tax‐​funded arts, is a giant income transfer upward: the middle class is taxed to pay for news and entertainment for the upper middle class. It’s no accident that you hear ads for Remy Martin and “private banking services” on NPR, not for Budweiser and free checking accounts.

Under threat from the House Republicans, NPR and PBS are using their tax‐​funded airwaves to reach their millions of affluent, influential fans. Local stations are running 30‐​second ads over and over urging their listeners and viewers to call members of Congress. Their websites offer instructions on how to “call, fax, or e‐​mail Congress.” With some 800 radio and television stations running these ads, this is a multi‐​million dollar lobbying campaign.

It’s simply wrong for tax‐​funded broadcasters to use our tax dollars to lobby on behalf of getting more tax dollars. When government money is used to influence the government, it’s like putting a thumb on the scales of public debate. Government itself is tipping the scales in one direction.

Tax‐​funded broadcasting has become a vast $2.5 billion enterprise, with more than 350 television stations and 780 radio stations reaching every corner of the country. It’s time to cut this “infant industry” loose and let it make its own way in the marketplace, without any more money from the taxpayers.

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