Get ready to suspend your disbelief. One of the most resilient acts in theatrical history is returning to the D.C. stage: the We're Going To Defund Public Broadcasting show.
Every time this play gets revived, the director alters the story slightly to reflect recent events. This time the performers are riffing on National Public Radio's decision to fire Juan Williams after he said he gets nervous when he sees people in Muslim garb on a plane. John Boehner, who might be the country's next speaker of the House, has told National Review "it's reasonable to ask why Congress is spending taxpayers' money to support a left-wing radio network—and in the wake of Juan Williams' firing, it's clearer than ever that's what NPR is." Newt Gingrich, who's having one of his periodic flirtations with a presidential run, announced on Fox that "Congress should investigate NPR and consider cutting off its money." The conservative direct-mail king Richard Viguerie has launched a petition to defund the network, accusing the suits who dismissed Williams of "censorship of ideas not in conformity with the ruling class elites."
It's a snappier setup than the one Richard Nixon used in 1971, when he was upset about the political programming on public TV and proposed a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped the crowd in charge of the system. On the other hand, it doesn't have the cloak-and-dagger spirit that the State Department flunky Otto Reich brought to the play in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's reelection, when he met with NPR staffers in a smoky little room and warned them that the White House thought they were "Moscow on the Potomac."* Nor is it as colorful as the 1993 spectacle starring Bob Dole and David Horowitz, who attacked the radical Pacifica network rather than NPR, allowing them to quote a much weirder series of statements than anything in the Juan Williams kerfuffle. ("We didn't have Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself.") And the specific focus on NPR means the stakes don't feel as high as they did in 1994 when Speaker-elect Gingrich started skylarking that he might "zero out" the entire public broadcasting budget, let alone that moment 10 years later when a House subcommittee actually voted to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That element of danger was a nice suspenseful touch. You could almost forget it was all an act.
Because an act is precisely what this is. The Williams story will be stale by the time the new Congress is in a position to do anything about it, making it less likely that there will be a big push to add anti-NPR conditions to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's next check. Now, if Republican leaders want to keep the issue alive between now and then, I'm sure it won't be hard to keep finding stuff on public radio that offends rank-and-file conservatives. But even then, there's a difference between wanting to keep the issue alive and actually intending to end the network's subsidies. These standoffs never end with public broadcasting getting defunded. The point of the exercise isn't to cut NPR loose; it's to use the threat of cutting NPR loose to whip the network into line.
After Nixon made his threats, the system was still standing but all but one of the programs he found objectionable left the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all found themselves with new gigs at PBS—and following an initial cut, the CPB's budget crept back upward. The funding fight five years ago took place against the backdrop of a conservative appointee atop the CPB crusading for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR. Now the Republicans are getting ready to retake the House and possibly the Senate. With the Juan Williams spat, the party has found a familiar way to flex its muscles.
Every time this happens, I fantasize that this time, just maybe, the broadcasters won't blink. NPR can certainly survive without the subsidies. It gets very little direct money from the CPB—less than 2 percent of its budget. In practice, to be sure, it depends on the government far more than that: About 40 percent of its money comes from its member stations, which usually receive their own federal subsidies and are frequently affiliated with publicly funded universities. Still, the network has been picking up other sources of support, just this month receiving a $1.8 million grant from George Soros' Open Society Foundations—already more than half the amount it got directly this year from the feds. As for the affiliates, nothing quite boosts a public radio station's pledge week like the possibility that those Republican meanies might pump CS gas into the Morning Edition compound and set the place on fire.
More importantly, a number of plans have been floating around since the 1990s that would transmute the CPB from a de facto arm of the government into an independent trust with a private endowment. One effect of this would be to prevent anyone offended by NPR's personnel decisions from being required to give the place any more support. Another would be to shield public broadcasters from any politician attempting to stick his snout into their editorial choices. The idea has thus attracted support from both sides of the conventional political spectrum, with free-market economists endorsing the concept and with left-wing documentarians boosting it via groups such as Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. And so I imagine a new ending for this recurring show, one where public broadcasters and their critics decide to call each other's bluff and the whole rotten system comes tumbling down.
But that's a pipe dream, not a prediction. Way back in 1995, one press report in the aftermath of the broadcasters' budget battle declared that "all the groups agreed on the need to establish an independent trust fund that eventually could replace federal funding," citing a CPB spokesman as its source. Fat chance: Fifteen years later, that independence is still little more than a fantasy. The voters may elect some Tea Party backbenchers next month who really are serious about cutting off Nina Totenberg's allowance, but those legislators will have a hard enough time persuading their own party to pull the plug, let alone the Democrats running the White House and possibly the Senate. The establishment Republicans know how this script ends, and it doesn't wrap up with a great big cut. As Ben Wattenberg is alleged to have said when he heard the Gingrich Congress was thinking of defunding PBS: "What! Just when we've taken it over?"
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).
* This originally stated that the meeting with Otto Reich took place after Reagan's initial election, not his reelection.