Ending Taxpayer Funding for Public Broadcasting

July 11, 2005 • Testimony

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on taxpayer funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by extension for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. I shall argue that Americans should not be taxed to fund a national broadcast network and that Congress should therefore terminate the funding for CPB.

We wouldn’t want the federal government to publish a national newspaper. Neither should we have a government television network and a government radio network. 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.

Much of the recent debate about tax‐​funded broadcasting has centered on whether there is a bias, specifically a liberal bias, at NPR and PBS. I would argue that bias is inevitable. 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.

As a libertarian, I have an outsider’s perspective on both liberal and conservative bias. And 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. The problem is not so much a particular bias as the existence of any bias.

Many people have denied the existence of a liberal bias at NPR and PBS. Of course, the most effective bias is one that most listeners or viewers don’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 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 ever before in history, or that the environment has been getting steadily cleaner.

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

In the past few weeks, as this issue has been debated, I’ve noted other examples. A common practice is labeling conservatives but not liberals in news stories — that is, listeners are warned that the conservative guests have a political agenda but are not told that the other guests are liberals. Take a story on the Supreme Court that identified legal scholar Bruce Fein correctly as a conservative but did not label liberal scholars Pamela Karlan and Akhil Amar. Or 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. I think we can be confident that if a Reagan Cabinet official wrote a play about how stupid and evil liberals are — the mirror image of Reich’s play — it would not be celebrated on NPR. 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.

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

There are many complaints today about political interference in CPB, PBS, and NPR. I am sympathetic to those complaints. No journalist wants political appointees looking over his shoulder. But political interference is entirely a consequence of political funding. As long as the taxpayers fund something, their representatives have the authority to investigate how the taxpayers’ money is being spent. Recall the criticism directed at PBS in 1994 for broadcasting Tales of the City, which has gay characters. Because of the political pressure, PBS decided not to produce the sequel, More Tales of the City. It appeared on Showtime and generated little political controversy because Showtime isn’t funded with tax dollars. Remove the tax funding, and NPR and PBS would be free from political interference, free to be as daring and innovative and provocative as they like.

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 their advertisers about the affluent audience they’re reaching. In 1999 NPR commissioned Mediamark Research to study its listeners. NPR then 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.

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

Public radio listeners are driven to learn more, to earn more, to spend more, and to be more involved in their communities. They are leaders and decision makers, both in the boardroom and in the town square. They are more likely to exert their influence on their communities in all types of ways — from voting to volunteering

Public radio listeners are dynamic — they do more. They are much more likely than the general public to travel to foreign nations, to attend concerts and arts events, and to exercise regularly. They are health conscious, and are less likely to have serious health problems. Their media usage patterns reflect their active lifestyles, they tend to favor portable media such as newspapers or radio.

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

Specifically, the report found, compared with the general 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 or more
  • 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 its viewers 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 or more
  • 315 percent more likely to have stocks valued at $75,000 or more
  • 278 percent more likely to have spent at least $6000 on a foreign vacation in the past year.

Tax‐​funded broadcasting 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.

Defenders of the tax‐​funded broadcast networks often point out that only about 15 percent of their funding comes from the federal government. Indeed, NPR and PBS have been quite successful at raising 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 larger revenue fluctuations than that. It isn’t fun, but it happens. In a time of $400 billion deficits, Congress should be looking for nonessential spending that could be cut. Tax‐​funded broadcasting is no longer an infant industry; it’s a healthy $2.5 billion enterprise that might well discover it liked being free of political control for a paltry 15 percent cut.

Finally, I would note that the Constitution provides no authority for a federal broadcasting system. Members of Congress once took seriously the constraints imposed on them by the Constitution. In 1794 James Madison, the father of the Constitution, rose on the floor of the House and declared that he could not “undertake to lay his finger on that article of the Federal Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” In 1887, exactly 100 years after the Constitution was drafted, President Grover Cleveland made a similar point when he vetoed a bill to buy seeds for Texas farmers suffering from a drought, saying he could “find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.” Things had changed by 1935, when President Roosevelt wrote to Congress, “I hope your committee will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.” I suggest that this committee take note of the fact that no article of the Constitution authorizes a national broadcast network.

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

But Congress’s resolve in such matters is not trusted. Recall the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which likewise promised to phase out farm subsidies. Barely two years had passed when Congress began providing “emergency relief payments” to make up for the scheduled reductions. This time, if Congress pledges to phase out broadcasting subsidies, it needs to make sure that its decision sticks.

A healthy democracy needs a free and diverse press. Americans today have access to more sources of news and opinion than ever before. Deregulation has produced unprecedented diversity‐​more broadcast networks than before, cable networks, satellite television and radio, the Internet. If there was at some point a diversity argument for NPR and PBS, it is no longer valid. We do not need a government news and opinion network. More importantly, we should not require taxpayers to pay for broadcasting that will inevitably reflect a particular perspective on politics and culture. The marketplace of democracy should be a free market, in which the voices of citizens are heard, with no unfair advantage granted by government to one participant.

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