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: