If You Love Big Bird, Set Him Free

A left/right alliance to end federal subsidies to public broadcasters


The good news for public broadcasters is that Congress has failed to defund them. The budget deal reached earlier this month didn't include the House Republicans' rider to remove all subsidies to National Public Radio Inc., let alone the earlier proposal to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The bad news: Those broadcasters would be better off in the long run if Washington really did pull the plug. The same federal money that underwrites their work makes it easier for politicians to interfere. Just as advertisers can exert influence over commercial programming, government officials have used their power of the purse to pressure public broadcasters.

That was true in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon called for a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped his critics in the Public Broadcasting Service, a face-off that ended with all but one of the programs the president opposed being taken off the air. It was true in the 1980s, when a State Department official complained about NPR's Central American coverage, calling the network "National People's Radio." It was true in the 1990s, when the Kansas Republican Bob Dole, then Senate minority leader, denounced the radical Pacifica radio network. It was true under George W. Bush, when CPB chief Ken Tomlinson fought for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR.

And it's true today, as NPR adopts a fire-first, ask-questions-later approach when critics call for its employees' heads.

A Private Trust?

That's why these debates over CPB usually include a moment when someone suggests that the agency be transformed into a private trust supported by an endowment. The details vary, but the general idea is that the federal government would withdraw from future funding after it gives the corporation a parting gift to help tide it over. The usual suggestion is that it turn over some of the profits from a spectrum auction, rather than relying on taxes or borrowing for funds.

In any event, this would free the broadcasters from depending on annual appropriations while giving them time to adapt to the new financial environment, just as companies in the private sector adjust their business models when there's a change in their revenue streams.

Parts of the public broadcasting world, such as NPR, already have endowments that would allow them to easily survive without government support. The independent CPB could devote more resources to rural stations, independent documentary shops and other players on the edges of the system.

Partisan Lines

Why would Tea Party Republicans want to give them that much? Because a cutoff isn't likely to happen otherwise. As long as the debate falls along partisan lines, these bills aren't likely to become law until the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. That won't happen until 2013 at the earliest.

Even then, history shows that a lot of Republicans would rather use their influence to get more conservatives on the air than to cut the system's strings. After the Newt Gingrich Congress arrived in 1995, for example, there was similar talk about ending the broadcasters' subsidies. It didn't happen. Instead, PBS gave more slots to right-wing pundits and, after an initial cut, Congress' public broadcasting budget started creeping upward again.

Perhaps the next time the Republicans control Washington, the more hard-core anti-spending wing of the party will be stronger. But that's hardly guaranteed.

Rearrange the Teams

Now suppose we rearrange the teams. On the right (and parts of the left), you have Americans understandably upset that they're being forced to fund programs whose views they dislike. On the left (and parts of the right), you have broadcasters who are getting tired of jumping every time a politician bellows. If they came together into a new team, they could face off against an alliance of Republicans who want their own shows on PBS and public broadcasters who prefer subsidy to liberty.

I can't guarantee that the battle would conclude with the separation of CPB and state. But it would be a lot more likely to end that way than what we have now, as House Republicans pass symbolic bills and liberal Democrats use the alleged threat to Elmo to raise money for MoveOn.org. That's a good way for both right and left to throw red meat to their base. It's a bad way to make substantial changes in how the public broadcasting bureaucracy works.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). A version of this article was published by Bloomberg Government as part of a point-counterpoint with NPR Senior Vice President Kinsey Wilson.