Ending Taxpayer Funding for Public Broadcasting


Thank you for the opportunity to testify on taxpayer funding forthe Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by extension forNational Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. I shallargue that Americans should not be taxed to fund a nationalbroadcast network and that Congress should therefore terminate thefunding for CPB.

We wouldn’t want the federal government to publish a nationalnewspaper. Neither should we have a government television networkand a government radio network. If anything should be kept separatefrom government and politics, it’s the news and public affairsprogramming that informs Americans about government and itspolicies. When government brings us the news — with all theinevitable bias and spin — the government is putting its thumb onthe scales of democracy. Journalists should not work for thegovernment. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize news andpublic‐​affairs programming.

Much of the recent debate about tax‐​funded broadcasting hascentered on whether there is a bias, specifically a liberal bias,at NPR and PBS. I would argue that bias is inevitable. Any reporteror editor has to choose what’s important. It’s impossible to makesuch decisions without a framework, a perspective, a view of howthe world works.

As a libertarian, I have an outsider’s perspective on bothliberal and conservative bias. And I’m sympathetic to some ofpublic broadcasting’s biases, such as its tilt toward gay rights,freedom of expression, and social tolerance and its deep skepticismtoward the religious right. And I share many of the culturalpreferences of its programmers and audience, for theater,independent cinema, history, and the like. The problem is not somuch a particular bias as the existence of any bias.

Many people have denied the existence of a liberal bias at NPRand PBS. Of course, the most effective bias is one that mostlisteners or viewers don’t perceive. That can be the subtle use ofadjectives or frameworks — for instance, a report that “Congresshas failed to pass a health care bill” clearly leaves theimpression that a health care bill is a good thing, and Congresshas “failed” a test. Compare that to language like “Congress turnedback a Republican effort to cut taxes for the wealthy.” There thelistener is clearly being told that something bad almost happened,but Congress “turned back” the threat.

A careful listener to NPR would notice a preponderance ofreports on racism, sexism, and environmental destruction. DavidFanning, executive producer of “Frontline,” PBS’s documentaryseries, responds to questions of bias by saying, “We ask hardquestions to people in power. That’s anathema to some people inWashington these days.” But there has never been a “Frontline“documentary on the burden of taxes, or the number of people whohave died because federal regulations keep drugs off the market, orthe way that state governments have abused the law in their pursuitof tobacco companies, or the number of people who use guns toprevent crime. Those “hard questions” just don’t occur to liberaljournalists.

Anyone who got all his news from NPR would never know thatAmericans of all races live longer, healthier, and in more comfortthan ever before in history, or that the environment has beengetting steadily cleaner.

In Washington, I have the luxury of choosing from two NPRstations. On Wednesday evening, June 29, a Robert Reich commentarycame on. I switched to the other station, which was broadcasting aDaniel Schorr commentary. That’s not just liberal bias, it’s aliberal roadblock.

In the past few weeks, as this issue has been debated, I’venoted other examples. A common practice is labeling conservativesbut not liberals in news stories — that is, listeners are warnedthat the conservative guests have a political agenda but are nottold that the other guests are liberals. Take a story on theSupreme Court that identified legal scholar Bruce Fein correctly asa conservative but did not label liberal scholars Pamela Karlan andAkhil Amar. Or take the long and glowing reviews of two leftistagitprop plays, one written by Robert Reich and performed on CapeCod and another written by David Hare and performed in Los Angeles.I think we can be confident that if a Reagan Cabinet official wrotea play about how stupid and evil liberals are — the mirror image ofReich’s play — it would not be celebrated on NPR. And then therewas the effusive report on Pete Seeger, the folksinger who was amember of the Communist Party, complete with a two‐​hour onlineconcert, to launch the Fourth of July weekend.

And if there were any doubt about the political spin of NPR andPBS, it was surely ended when a congressional subcommittee voted tocut the funding for CPB. Who swung into action? Moveon​.org, CommonCause, and various left‐​wing media pressure groups. They made“defending PBS” the top items on their websites, they sent outmillions of emails, they appeared on radio and television shows inorder to defend an effective delivery system for liberal ideas.Public broadcasters worked hand in glove with those groups, forinstance linking from the NPR website to those groups’ sites.

There are many complaints today about political interference inCPB, PBS, and NPR. I am sympathetic to those complaints. Nojournalist wants political appointees looking over his shoulder.But political interference is entirely a consequence of politicalfunding. As long as the taxpayers fund something, theirrepresentatives have the authority to investigate how thetaxpayers’ money is being spent. Recall the criticism directed atPBS in 1994 for broadcasting Tales of the City, which hasgay characters. Because of the political pressure, PBS decided notto produce the sequel, More Tales of the City. It appearedon Showtime and generated little political controversy becauseShowtime isn’t funded with tax dollars. Remove the tax funding, andNPR and PBS would be free from political interference, free to beas daring and innovative and provocative as they like.

One dirty little secret that NPR and PBS don’t like toacknowledge in public debate is the wealth of their listeners andviewers. But they’re happy to tell their advertisers about theaffluent audience they’re reaching. In 1999 NPR commissionedMediamark Research to study its listeners. NPR thenenthusiastically told advertisers that its listeners are 66 percentwealthier than the average American, three times as likely to becollege graduates, and 150 percent more likely to be professionalsor managers.

But perhaps that was an unusual year? Mediamark’s 2003 studyfound the same pattern. As NPR explained, based on the 2003study:

Public radio listeners are driven to learn more, toearn more, to spend more, and to be more involved in theircommunities. They are leaders and decision makers, both in theboardroom and in the town square. They are more likely to exerttheir influence on their communities in all types of ways — fromvoting to volunteering

Public radio listeners are dynamic — they do more. Theyare much more likely than the general public to travel to foreignnations, to attend concerts and arts events, and to exerciseregularly. They are health conscious, and are less likely to haveserious health problems. Their media usage patterns reflect theiractive lifestyles, they tend to favor portable media such asnewspapers or radio.

As consumers, they are more likely to have a taste forproducts that deliver on the promise of quality. Naturally, theytend to spend more on products and services.

Specifically, the report found, compared with thegeneral public, NPR listeners are

  • 55 percent less likely to have a household income below$30,000
  • 117 percent more likely to have a household income above$150,000
  • 152 percent more likely to have a home valued at $500,000 ormore
  • 194 percent more likely to travel to France
  • 326 percent more likely to read the New Yorker
  • 125 percent more likely to own bonds
  • 125 percent more likely to own a Volvo.

PBS has similar demographics. PBS boasts that itsviewers are

  • 60 percent more likely to have a household income above$75,000
  • 139 percent more likely to have a graduate degree
  • 98 percent more likely to be a CEO
  • 132 percent likely to have a home valued at $500,000 ormore
  • 315 percent more likely to have stocks valued at $75,000 ormore
  • 278 percent more likely to have spent at least $6000 on aforeign vacation in the past year.

Tax‐​funded broadcasting is a giant income transfer upward: themiddle class is taxed to pay for news and entertainment for theupper middle class. It’s no accident that you hear ads for RemyMartin and “private banking services” on NPR, not for Budweiser andfree checking accounts.

Defenders of the tax‐​funded broadcast networks often point outthat only about 15 percent of their funding comes from the federalgovernment. Indeed, NPR and PBS have been quite successful atraising money from foundations, members, and business enterprises.Given that, they could certainly absorb a 15 percent revenue loss.Businesses and nonprofit organizations often deal with largerrevenue fluctuations than that. It isn’t fun, but it happens. In atime of $400 billion deficits, Congress should be looking fornonessential spending that could be cut. Tax‐​funded broadcasting isno longer an infant industry; it’s a healthy $2.5 billionenterprise that might well discover it liked being free ofpolitical control for a paltry 15 percent cut.

Finally, I would note that the Constitution provides noauthority for a federal broadcasting system. Members of Congressonce took seriously the constraints imposed on them by theConstitution. In 1794 James Madison, the father of theConstitution, rose on the floor of the House and declared that hecould not “undertake to lay his finger on that article of theFederal Constitution which granted a right to Congress ofexpending, on objects of benevolence, the money of theirconstituents.” In 1887, exactly 100 years after the Constitutionwas drafted, President Grover Cleveland made a similar point whenhe vetoed a bill to buy seeds for Texas farmers suffering from adrought, saying he could “find no warrant for such an appropriationin the Constitution.” Things had changed by 1935, when PresidentRoosevelt wrote to Congress, “I hope your committee will not permitdoubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block thesuggested legislation.” I suggest that this committee take note ofthe fact that no article of the Constitution authorizes a nationalbroadcast network.

Even if this committee comes to the conclusion that taxpayerfunding for radio and television networks is imprudent andconstitutionally unfounded, I recognize that you may hesitate towithdraw a funding stream that stations count on. In that regard, Iwould note again that federal funding is only about 15 percent ofpublic broadcasting revenues. But you might also phase out thefunding, perhaps on a five‐​year schedule. The total funding requestfor this year is about $500 million. Congress might decide toreduce it by $100 million a year, leaving the CPB entirely free offederal taxpayer funding at the end of five years.

But Congress’s resolve in such matters is not trusted. Recallthe 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which likewise promised to phase outfarm subsidies. Barely two years had passed when Congress beganproviding “emergency relief payments” to make up for the scheduledreductions. This time, if Congress pledges to phase outbroadcasting subsidies, it needs to make sure that its decisionsticks.

A healthy democracy needs a free and diverse press. Americanstoday have access to more sources of news and opinion than everbefore. Deregulation has produced unprecedented diversity‐​morebroadcast networks than before, cable networks, satellitetelevision and radio, the Internet. If there was at some point adiversity argument for NPR and PBS, it is no longer valid. We donot need a government news and opinion network. More importantly,we should not require taxpayers to pay for broadcasting that willinevitably reflect a particular perspective on politics andculture. The marketplace of democracy should be a free market, inwhich the voices of citizens are heard, with no unfair advantagegranted by government to one participant.

David Boaz

Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
United States Senate Appropriations Committee