End it, Don't Mend it

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Jack Shafer tells liberals why they should learn to love de-funding public broadcasting. Sample:

Modern conservatives like Nixon and Bush don't like to cut big government, they like to "conserve" it and refashion it to their end: A political spoil like public broadcasting is too valuable a weapon to surrender to ideology.

The best remedy for this week's public broadcasting crisis isn't the dismantling of the "objectivity and balance" firewall but the abolishment of the [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] itself. Bureaucracies inevitably conform to the wishes of the ruling party, and as much as CPB would like to rise above politics, every federal appropriation comes laden with political baggage. No government–Republican, Democrat, or Socialist–will ever surrender control over media money it disburses.

If media activists were serious about public broadcaster independence, they'd take this week's news as a cue to wean public television and radio from the federal government teat.

Whole thing here.

For some reason takes on public broadcasting, see Jesse Walker's 1997 review of Ralph Engelman's Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History; his 2001 interview with Jerold Starr, author of Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting; and his 1997 Cato paper arguing why community radio doesn't need the CPB. Also, there's Nick Gillespie's 1995 plea for culture yes, government no; and if you really want to feel the pain, read Rick Henderson's 1995 "sobriety test" for How to tell if the GOP is serious about shrinking government.

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  1. I suppose it’s only human nature to want to have your cake and eat it too. As in, we want your money, but we don’t want you to tell us what to do with it. Unfortunately, too many in public radio think think no-strings-attached governmnet money is their “right” as “public” broadcasters, so don’t hold your breath for them to interpret things the way Shafer suggests.

  2. I don’t recall “Rambo” being screened on PBS during the Reagan/Bush years. Nor has the BBC been falling all over itself to make Tony Blair happy.

    The ideological cleansing that is going on at CPB is not an inevitable outcome of having a public broadcasting entity, but a unique, discreet, and purposeful event occuring under this particular Republican government.

  3. Yeah, now that the Republicans are in charge they’ve forgotten all about the federalist/small-government principals that got them there. And now that the Democrats are the minority party, they are suddenly outraged at the way the federal government shapes everybody’s lives.

    Friendly rhetoric from power lusting fucks who happen to be out of power, is of no value.

  4. Yeah, Cokie Roberts is a real pillar of Neo-Con ideals.

    Whatever.

  5. Soon PBS will stand for the Pachyderm Broadcast System.

  6. They can put Snuffy into the logo.

  7. Bob Ross died of cancer years ago. Very sad.

  8. That is too bad. He was the only reason I watched PBS…

    Happy trees…

  9. Public broadcasting is one of those things where libertarians have little choice but to take a absolutist position. With other spending programs, there are ways to tinker with them to make them “more free” or slightly more to a libertarian’s liking, but the mere fact of having public broadcasting, like public schools, just opens up too many cans of worms that can’t be reconciled with a limited view of government. You have to have government deciding what kind of programming is valuable. You have to have government deciding what kinds of viewpoints should be heard, which should not, and how much time should be devoted to the various viewpoints that are heard. The government decides what “balanced” is — either that, or you have the government funding an entity that is supposed to regulate itself, with no accountability to government or to the taxpayers funding it.

    PBS and NPR often go to great lengths to explain that the vast majority of their funding does not come from the government, and therefore taxpayers ought not be concerned about their dollars going to something they perceive to be biased. Well, if that’s the case, why not avoid the dilemma entirely, and ditch that small bit of federal allocation? Surely the Ford Foundation or some other group dedicated to “social justice” or “an equitable and sustainable society” (as most NPR donors seem to be) would step up to the plate to make ends meet for them. I make that suggestion as an almost daily listener of NPR.

  10. Here’s where this libertarian has to bite the bullet, since I am a regular NPR listener. There is, however, no valid reason to use the coercive power of government to fund it.
    I’ll make the CPB a deal. If they get off the government tit, I’ll send them some cash next time they hold one of those infuriating pledge drives.

  11. >>Well, if that’s the case, why not avoid the >>dilemma entirely, and ditch that small bit of >>federal allocation?

    Federal money frees them from having to cater to the lowest common denominator, the way profit-oriented broadcasters do.

    Reliance on private contributions mean that they still have to cater to the needs of their audience.

    Corporate funding may be problematic, as it gives those corporations leverage over content.

    As Joe said, until now there had been no problem with public broadcasting acting as a gov’t propaganda organ. If conservatives can show that they have tried to enter the public broadcasting arena and have been shut out, then they may have a point. William Buckley and Tucker Carlson seem to be evidence against that.

  12. This is where Mark gets plastered for suggesting that there might be appropriate standards by which to measure quality besides the ability to separate people with available cash from their money.

    Anybody care to compare sales of Charles Mingus albums to those of MC Hammer?

  13. With digital TV, I’m intereted to see if a local PBS station would off up its other 5 digital channels on their signal to commercial interests. Would certainly cover some funding problems. Perhaps the law does not allow it.

  14. Mark,

    There are several problems with that theory. The first and most obvious is that the federal allocation is about 2% of their income. If 98% of their income comes from donations, how are they freed from the drive to cater to others? In fact, most of NPR’s funding does indeed come from corporate underwriting.

  15. joe,

    Are Charles Mingus albums still available for purchase under a purely market-driven system? Indeed, they are. Similarly, just because a radio station is not the most popular format does not mean it will disappear in a free market.

  16. Is it possible that the 2% of PBS funds from the feds makes it possible for corporate sponsors to accrue certain tax advantages? I don’t know the details of the tax code (does anybody?) but I wouldn’t be shocked if PBS’s sponsors would lose certain tax advantages if PBS were completely cut free from the government.

    Is this true? If so, then wouldn’t it at least be politically feasible to cut the public subsidy to the bare minimum possible? I know, not the ideal solution, but a step in the right direction.

  17. PBS lets see…..has about what 3 million viewers at any given time? What the GOP always does not mention but conservatist have written about for years and always got it wrong is that the private media industry could never put on such quality shows over the years such a PBS has DONE! they always said why should taxpayers fund it when the “MARKET” could do it! Well the market has never tried to do it! They know that the viewership of PBS style programming is narrow but of high quality and that they would never get a return on their investment. If the plug is pulled on taxpayer funds the part that lets it get pulled will lose more voters to the INDEPENDANT parties. Because, we all know Bert and Ernie know Buster and when all of them get together its a party!

  18. OPUS, it seems to me that the market has been providing much the same type of programming for which PBS has traditionally been the source. Look at Discovery, The History Channel, Art & Entertainment, Bravo etc.

  19. joe,

    Ah, okay. Although I’d hazard a guess that the musical preferences of this group are more diverse and left-field than the public at large. It seems we can never have a Dan Rather post around here without someone mentioning “Rocked by Rape.”

  20. Allen,

    In a lot of areas, that’s true, but the gap between PBS’s kiddie shows and those on the commercial networks is pretty large.

  21. Reliance on private contributions mean that they still have to cater to the needs of their audience.

    They have to cater to the needs of their audience regardless of where their funding comes from, unless you’re suggesting that they broadcast programming that quite literally nobody is interested in watching.

    This is where Mark gets plastered for suggesting that there might be appropriate standards by which to measure quality besides the ability to separate people with available cash from their money. Anybody care to compare sales of Charles Mingus albums to those of MC Hammer?

    Well, first of all, broadcasters don’t measure quality by “the ability to separate people with available cash from their money,” unless by “people” you mean “advertisers,” because you certainly don’t mean “the intended consumers of the product.” And they can only get money from those people by guaranteeing that a certain number of people are watching, which they can only do by conducting ongoing real-time polling via Neilsen Inc.

    In any case, even the quality of an individual Charles Mingus album — or any other — is measured by “the ability to separate people with available cash from their money.” If you don’t think so, let’s compare how many people own and listen to Miles Davis’s “Kind Of Blue” vs. how many people own and listen to Miles Davis’s “Aura.”

  22. “Federal money frees them from having to cater to the lowest common denominator, the way profit-oriented broadcasters do.”

    you’ve never seen a full on PBS FDR lapdance, have you? 🙂

  23. “The first and most obvious is that the federal allocation is about 2% of their income. If 98% of their income comes from donations, how are they freed from the drive to cater to others? In fact, most of NPR’s funding does indeed come from corporate underwriting.”

    If that 2% isn’t necessary to their operation, what’s the point of it?

    “Look at Discovery, The History Channel, Art & Entertainment, Bravo etc.”

    Discovery devotes an indordinate amount of time, it seems to me, to sharks; The History Channel to WWII and other military/tech themes, A&E seems to be mostly “Law and Order” reruns (not that I mind) and Bravo’s once-respectable Biography series turned from Winston Churchill to the cast of Gilligan’s Island. I may be short-changing some of these channels because I don’t watch them, those are just the things they tend to advertise about themselves. Personally I’ve gotten a lot more out of PBS, and I’m not that highbrow.

    It’s not simply a question of taste, there are (or should be) objective criteria for what constitutes educational or culturally relevant material. If you have a station called “American Movie Classics” it shouldn’t be showing “Predator”.

    “wouldn’t it at least be politically feasible to cut the public subsidy to the bare minimum possible? I know, not the ideal solution”

    I think, in the grand scale of things, we all have bigger things to worry about than a few pennies per year per tax payer going to PBS. Even libertarians.

  24. The point is that, however small, PBS subsidies are wrong. Why can’t the loyal PBS viewers make up that 2% of government funding?

  25. Allen, you’re giving Discovery, et al. too much credit. PBS still wipes the floor with basic cable when it comes to science and history programming.

    But on the other hand, you’d never see Mythbusters or The First 48 on public television.

  26. Jesse Walker’s… arguing why community radio doesn’t need the CPB.

    Here in Memphis, we have WEVL-FM, an entirely volunteer community radio station, unfettered by any connection with a university. It’s funded entirely by memberships and a pledge drive. While of course quality varies widely from show to show, It’s a really great thing to have, and I’ll miss it when I leave town in a few weeks.

    It would be so easy for public broadcasting to cast off that last little bit of subsidy. As it is, in the last 10 years or so as they have become more and more reliant on the market (sponsorships and pledges), we’ve seen more and more crap like Fleetwood Mac and Eagles concerts. Ugh. Like we need that.

  27. Dead Elvis: Meanwhile, the incentives attached the those CPB subsidies have encouraged stations to move away from that sort of creative programming and towards the mainstream — the exact opposite of the effect touted elsewhere in this thread. (Cf. Mark’s “Federal money frees them from having to cater to the lowest common denominator, the way profit-oriented broadcasters do.”)

  28. Jesse,

    Please, explain.

  29. the gap between PBS’s kiddie shows and those on the commercial networks is pretty large.

    What is mattering more and more is the gap between PBS’s kiddie shows and the kiddie content available on DVD, the web, etc.

    We’ve been moving toward an “on demand” marketplace since the VCR came out. Sure you can time-shift the PBS programs, but do you really care about the PBS brand, or do you care about the quality of the program?

    Even if it’s true that PBS programs get foundation grants because PBS programs appear to be charity and thus a tax incentive, those foundations are what determine what gets made. The Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation could basically hire their own producers if they wanted to. Michael Moore seems to get it done somehow. So can the GOP. But it’s so easy to just take people’s money and the CPB is a conduit for that.

  30. It’s not simply a question of taste, there are (or should be) objective criteria for what constitutes educational or culturally relevant material. If you have a station called “American Movie Classics” it shouldn’t be showing “Predator”.

    Are you kidding? If Predator isnt a classic, I dont know what is. Ok, Commando is close. “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

    Meanwhile, the incentives attached the those CPB subsidies have encouraged stations to move away from that sort of creative programming and towards the mainstream

    I have a difficult time believing that with the demise of McNeil/Lehrer networks would cease to lead the 6:00 news with “America is Super”. I don’t know the neilsen ratings, but I would imagine the viwership of PBS is a drop in the bucket of the aggregate viewership of CBS, ABC and NBC. When the demand side of the equation is the average American, Fox News is the result.

  31. Please, explain.

    Click through to the Cato paper and the Engelman review for explanations and examples…

  32. I’ve always had a problem with government (aka “public”) broadcasting, and it is this:

    Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…

    How are federal and/or state and local laws that reserve spectrum for state broadcasters, and fund them through taxation, NOT such an abridgment?

    …that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical… Thomas Jefferson – Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786

    Shafers’s article points out that, for the typical PBS/NPR station HALF their funds come from government sources. That most of that comes from state/local coffers, not from Washington, makes no difference to me. Taxes is taxes, no matter which gubmint unit levies them. In my neck of the woods, the local 2-year Technical College holds the licenses for both a VHF and a UHF PBS outlet. The tech college board actually levies property taxes, even though we don’t get to vote on who sits on it! (Various elected officals in the area appoint the members.) The VHF was one of the country’s first sticks to go Hi-Def, and they have multiple digital transmissions, which are also available on some of the local cable monopolies. Anyone with digital cable can watch Nova whenever they damn please. Selling that full-power UHF would bring in tons of cash, but dismantling the empire isn’t on the list of things to do.

    In the same broadcast area, there are three “public” FMs: one owned by the local state U, another owned by the state U system run out of the state capital, and a third owned by the local public schools. There’s also an AMer covering most of the state from the state U’s main campus.

    I don’t hate non-commercial radio. I’m a frequent listener to a station run by our local private engineering college. There are some fine non-government, non-commercial broadcasters I seek out on the web. (WFUV at Fordham University, WHYY at the U of Penn, WDVX in Tennessee, even tiny WXPR in Rhinelander, WI.) But let’s stop pretending that governmentally-owned media is consistent with our constitutional order. We should no more accept that it is than that the Feds and the States should own and run newspapers.

    If these outlets ever honestly attributed the capital costs, below-market rents, and other subsidies (participation by their staff in the luxe state employee pension and health insurance schemes, frex), I’m sure the actual percentage of tax funding that goes into their revenue stream would be a lot highter then they admit.

    At the very least the PBSers/NPRers on the state’s teat ought to be privatized. An independent, non-profit, “listener-owned” status doesn’t prevent the likes of WNET from being as predictably lefty as a station owned by a state college. I expect it would take some time to change the culture of non-commercial broadcasting. As in the rest of the non-religious non-profit sector, there’s probably much self-selection by pinkos who, for some reason, don’t want to work for FOX. As long as I’m not paying for it against my will, good luck to them.

    Kevin

  33. When the demand side of the equation is the average American, Fox News is the result.

    God help us if you’re right.

  34. Two points, both anecdotal;

    When I was living in L.A. the local PBS affiliate concentrated on the entertainment industry, which shows at least some local control over content.

    In his Cato paper, Jesse Walker mentions the low cost of low power broadcasting stations, which brings to mind a recent incident where some low power public radio stations were swamped by a local group of religious conservatives who intentionally overrode their signal with their own, more powerful one.

    A good illustration of what I was talking about (re: catering to the lowest public denominator) is the way that, in the aftermath of 9/11, public radio stations had more foreign bureaus open to report on important events overseas than did commercial stations. Because foreign events usually doesn’t excite the average American viewer, the bottom-line oriented stations evidently put profits ahead of delivering real news and closed their overseas bureaus. Because of this, private donations to public radio increased at this time. Seems clear to me a lot of people felt they weren’t being well-served by the commercial news outlets.

  35. kevrob,

    Isn’t WHYY Philly’s primary public radio station and PBS affiliate? In fact, I think their fancy building in Center City is where Fresh Air is broadcast from. [They also once employed Mumia Abu-Jamal, IIRC.] WXPN is the awesome UPenn station that I remember growing up.

  36. phocion:

    Good catch on my WHYY/WXPN mixup. `HYY does claim that: WHYY, Inc., is a nonprofit corporation chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate TV12 and 91FM, the public broadcasting stations serving southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey, so it may not be directly under government control. XPN syndicates World Cafe, which can be an enjoyable listen.

    Anyone notice how the public broadcasters in some of the bigger cities are often licensed to a private non-profit, while in the “red states” they tend to be in the hands of public colleges or state broadcasting boards?

    Kevin

  37. Federal money frees them from having to cater to the lowest common denominator, the way profit-oriented broadcasters do.

    Actually, “profit-oriented” (better to call them ad-supported) broadcasters don’t all cater to the lowest common denominator. Especially on the radio dial, its all about market/demographic segments and niches. By now, everyone has figured out that you can’t make money from people with no money, so the demographics that bring in the ad dollars aren’t the “lowest common denominator” demos, they are the demos that have disposable income.

    PBS, by the way, has a very desirable demographic profile – very few of their listeners are poor dark-skinned people. PBS listeners tend to be overwhelmingly white, highly educated, and well-off. Just the group whose listening habits don’t need subsidizing with tax money.

    Reliance on private contributions mean that they still have to cater to the needs of their audience.

    Which collapses them right back into the same dynamic as the ad-supported broadcasters.

  38. R.C.: There is a difference, though, between the incentives created by advertising and the incentives created by direct listener or viewer support. It’s related to the difference between CBS and HBO, except that HBO doesn’t face a free-rider problem.

    Kevrob: There’s plenty of public universities with radio or TV stations in the blue states too. But there is something to the pattern you’ve noticed, and it’s a product of the midwestern progressive tradition, which was still a strong current when the first university radio stations were being launched.

  39. Jesse:

    I live in Wisconsin, but I wasn’t raised here. That may be why I consider progressive tradition one of my favorite political oxymorons. Our local “progressives” don’t want to change anything I think needs changing, and seem curiously opposed to technological progress. 🙂

    Kevin

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