Yes: Tax money shouldn't shore up blatantly biased TV and radio
A government $20 trillion in debt has just extended — not eliminated, as promised — funding for a public broadcaster that regularly infuriates and offends half the country.
The recently enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 not only gave the Corporation for Public Broadcasting its regular $495 million sweetsop, Congress also threw in another $50 million to upgrade its “interconnection system.”
Yet again, it was a two-year “advance appropriation” for the CPB — a special arrangement designed “to provide a firewall of independence” from the government accountability that usually goes hand in hand with government funding.
Back in March, President Donald Trump had proposed zeroing out funding for the CPB. The headlines promptly blared that public broadcasting was “in a fight for its life.” CPB CEO Patricia Harrison proclaimed that the loss of federal funds would lead to “the collapse of the public media system.”
Having won a reprieve, could one expect CPB, which funds NPR and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), to use this time to become less biased? Hardly.
With Congress demonstrably incapable of cutting the umbilical cord of funding, why should the CPB bother to become more acceptable to the half of Americans who are conservative?
The people at CPB are of course very liberal, but they're also smart. They know they can demagogue this issue to no end by accusing grownups of trying to stab Big Bird and Elmo in the heart. Historical reference: See “Romney, Mitt.”
After years of hearing from conservatives — including The Heritage Foundation — that it is both unfair and unwise for a broadcaster to depend even partially on funds extracted involuntarily from taxpayers, NPR and PBS have done nothing to moderate their impartiality.
At issue is not just the subject matter they choose to cover — for example, the prominence they give to the identity politics of groups formed on ethnic, racial and gender bases.
The real problem is the news and cultural programming of both, but especially NPR, exhibit the worldview of, say, MSNBC. Except that MSNBC is private; conservative taxpayers don't have to support it financially.
NPR has so clearly stopped trying to mend its ways that three years ago it brazenly named former ACLU official Jarl Mohn, who has given some $217,000 to Democratic candidates and causes, as its latest CEO.
Their only defense now is simply to deny the bias exists. And it always works for the leadership at CPB.
They know that Congressmen like Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) will always be there for them.
Cole chairs the House subcommittee that oversees funding for the CPB. Although he hails from one of the reddest states in the Union, he dismissed the budget’s elimination of the CPB's regular $445 million subsidy. “There is a strong constituency for public broadcasting in both the House and the Senate,” he insisted.
Cole's posture, incidentally, was also at variance with that of OMB Director Rick Mulvaney, who until very recently was his House colleague.
At a March 16 White House briefing, Mulvaney said of struggling hard-working Americans, “Can I really go to those folks, look them in the eye and say, look, I want to take money from you and I want to give it to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting? That is a really hard sell.” Indeed. But the folks on Capitol Hill are easy.
Even if NPR and PBS weren't biased, there's no reason for taxpayers to fund them. The government exists solely to guarantee our enumerated inalienable rights and to protect us from foreign enemies. Its intervention in the market only crowds out private philanthropy, which represents the lion's share of its budget.
Unfortunately, there are always conservatives like Rep. Cole.
Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow in international studies at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write him at Heritage, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002-4999.
No: PBS, NPR are dedicated to in-depth, unbiased reporting
So they ask a guy who’s worked for public television, locally and nationally for 26 years — most of his journalism career — to defend the institution (PBS and NPR) from significant, if not total, government defunding.
Whaddya expect he's gonna say? “Do it!”?
A few years ago, I actually might have said that about PBS. With the proliferation of cable TV channels and myriad programming choices all over the airwaves and the internet, there's got to be something for everyone out there, right?
Two key words here are “cable” and “internet.” A lot of folks in rural, distant, mountainous America (Trumplandia) may not get or want to pay for cable. The same with the internet, where one might stream video or audio programming. So they still search for over-the-air signals.
That’s where, in most cases, you can pick up PBS or NPR. PBS claims it reaches 99 percent of the nation; NPR's reach is similar.
The federal government helps that happen — with no small support from the “contributions of viewers like you.”
In 2015, private, non-tax-based sources provided 65 percent of public broadcasting revenues; 19 percent came from state and local tax-based institutions. Only 15.8 percent came from the federal government. It's an ideal public-private partnership.
Now let’s get to the sticky part. I worked for the now-called “PBS NewsHour” for 21 years when it was managed by co-anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. It was the first hour-long nightly newscast on the major broadcast networks.
MacNeil and Lehrer joked the show’s motto was “we dare to be boring.” Some nights it was. But the program’s existence was not predicated on audience ratings and advertising revenue.
Lehrer reminded us repeatedly: “No one can be truly objective (based on fortune of birth, socioeconomic background and education), but one can be fair.” That means providing both sides of the story. It’s an adage almost as old as American journalism itself. We employed that rule every day.
To be fair and balanced in this article, I must report that in the mid-1970s, I worked for the take-no-prisoners conservative Roger Ailes at a news syndication service underwritten by equally conservative brewing baron Joseph Coors. I was the Washington content producer, and neither ever meddled in the political news stories we generated.
I believe that was because I am a trained journalist. I went to college to learn how to report honestly, write accurately and present both sides.
I honored that training professionally in the best way I knew how. I worked with colleagues who had the same training, and we in turn taught our younger colleagues to respect the same values. Our editing enforced them.
Based on what I hear regularly on NPR, that integrity is regularly practiced there, too. I have long believed NPR has the best newscasts in all of broadcasting. They have to be, if for no other reason that its staff is using your tax dollars to inform you. And for that you deserve the “truth,” as informed and honorable professionals can best provide it.
So after dallying with the idea that we as a nation might sacrifice public broadcasting, I have reversed course.
Now, more than ever, with the onslaught of false news, alternative facts, proven lies in public debate and the unfathomable damage of computer hacking, we need responsible journalism — reporters and writers who can identify the truth and convey it in as many media as possible.
I'm not much of a Bible reader, but I recall it tells us repeatedly in chapters and verses such as John 8:32 and Philippians 4:8, the honest truth, once we can recognize and accept what it is, “will set you free.” And — I fervently believe — keep us free. PBS and NPR will help us stay that way.
Gregg Ramshaw held senior news broadcast positions at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for 21 years. Prior to that, he was a print and broadcast journalist in Chicago and Washington, D.C. He holds bachelors and masters degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Readers may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org