The Ethics Of Ending Public Broadcasting

The seeming inability of elected officials and politicians to deal with basic decisions involving responsibility, prudence, accountability and honesty is coming into sharp focus as yet another debate over taxpayer-funded public broadcasting on PBS and NPR gets underway.

Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn has introduced legislation that would cut all federal funding, an estimated annual $420 million, for public radio and television as part of the necessary effort to close the nation’s more than $13 trillion debt. As one of thousands of measures that will have to be taken to stave of fiscal catastrophe in the future, the move is truly a no-brainer, an example of the standard budget-balancing strategy of eliminating the most non-essential expenses, no matter how nice it may have been to have them when resources were more plentiful. In a rational, ethical environment where politicians didn’t regard their interest group contributors as more important than the welfare of the nation as a whole, Lamborn’s proposal wouldn’t be considered controversial. The rational response from all would be, “Well, of course! That’s $420 million that can be better used.”

But no. Instead, supporters of The Corporation for Public Broadcasting make manifestly deceitful arguments like:

  • “[420 million dollars] is a grain of sand on the federal budget beach, and you are not going to solve deficit reduction problems by cutting public broadcasting funding.” —Wick Rowland, president of a Colorado PBS station. This is an example of how people make arguments regarding government finances that they would ridicule in  their own homes. When a family is in serious debt, the only rational course is to cut back on luxuries and unnecessary expenses. No eating out; no premium cable; no designer genes. Watch the games on TV, don’t go to the stadium. Watch “Avatar” for ten bucks at the Cineplex, not thirty bucks at IMAX. Of course none of these things by themselves solve the problem, but they make it a little better, and they demonstrate a willingness to be responsible and make sacrifices to address a deficit. Find a hundred 420 million dollar cuts and you’ve saved 42 billion each year;  that’s no grain of sand. You can’t make a hundred cuts if you aren’t willing to make one.

  • “Public broadcasting provides intellectual content that isn’t available commercially.” This argument had validity back when there were three TV networks, nobody listened to FM, cable TV was a struggling industry, satellite TV didn’t exist, there were no DVDs or VCRs and the Internet was only known to the military. It is dishonest today as applied to television, and irrelevant as applied to radio. Have the people arguing this watched PBS lately? Many stations regularly feature recycled “classic” television shows from commercial TV of decades past, like “The Dean Martin Show,” the fare that PBS advocates in the Sixties said public broadcasting was necessary to avoid. Then there are hours and hours of old men and women lamely, faintly or sadly reprising their folk, doo-wop, pop and rock hits from decades ago, the exact programming, but worse,  that supposedly made NPR essential when these singers were svelte and could sing on key. Meanwhile, standard cable programming on CNN, Disney, the History Channel, Nickelodeon, VH1, the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the Weather Channel, Hallmark, C-Span, National Geographic and others collectively offer exactly the kind of programming PBS once monopolized, without the telethons. NPR is a different matter, at least until satellite radio (where literally everything on NPR, from left-leaning commentary to witty game shows to old-time radio classics and opera, are on other channels) takes over. Its content is mostly unique and generally excellent, but often esoteric, politically unbalanced, and certainly far from “essential.” If “Car Talk”, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” “The Prairie Home Companion” and “All Things Considered” really have so many followers, then a commercial station will pick them up, because popular programming makes money.
  • Rowland again, sounding a time-honored refrain: “The evidence is very clear that public broadcasting is more necessary than ever, that the kind of programming that we offer is not adequately provided in the commercial media, and that the original reasons for creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, NPR and so on, still exists, and perhaps even more poignantly now.” On the contrary, there is no such evidence. The original audiences for PBS, for example, were primarily well-educated upper-middle class households that disdained popular culture and sought public broadcasting as a refuge. Those people can afford to subscribe to satellite TV and cable today, rent DVD’s and find the content they want on the Web. There are no surveys that show that a substantial portion of Public Broadcasting’s audience are individuals without access to personal computers or cable. As always, public broadcasting is a subsidy for people who don’t need subsidies.
  • Two words: “Sesame Street.” This is the crown jewel of the dishonest myth that, as Rowland says, commercial broadcasting doesn’t adequately provide “that kind of programming.” If Public Broadcasting-style essential programming isn’t being supplied by commercial stations, it is because the programming is being provided by a competitor, the U.S. Government, that doesn’t worry about things like deficits. I will guarantee that if PBS was dissolved tomorrow, repeats of “Sesame Street” would be on local TV channels nationwide within a month (Question: Why do today’s toddlers need brand new episodes of the show, if the program was so effective teaching kids with its episodes 40 years ago? How many ways to teach the letter “D” do taxpayers have to fund?), and Disney or Nickelodeon will have the show on its schedule before six months.

Like so many arguments that should have an easy resolution, this one is polluted by ideological warfare. Republicans and conservatives have been itching to kill PBS and NPR for decades, and their motives have been more driven by the conviction that the two projects are public brain-washing tools run by the Left than by fiscal responsibility. I’ll stipulate that many of them still want to cut them out of the budget for the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t change the evident truth that cutting them is still the responsible, sensible, necessary thing to do, if only to prove that the nation is willing to sacrifice some frosting to save the cake.

Now it is time for long-time NPR and PBS defenders to be ethical, stop making dishonest arguments, swallow hard, and send Big Bird and Garrison Keillor packing.

Believe me: they’ll be fine.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of Ending Public Broadcasting

  1. Wow!! Taking on a government expenditure, the loss of which would cause a bunch of people to go completely crazy. And Sesame Street (which my mother wouldn’t even let us watch)…is nothing safe?!?

    Fortunately, your simple logic cuts through the crap that the financiers of PBS have been spewing for years. I’m not sure your arguments are ethical as much as they are part of basic fiscal responsibility. But I can see the connection as Wick Rowland’s reasoning is clearly incorrect at best and lying – which is unethical – at worst.

    Anyways…more good stuff from you.


  2. Exactly right. Politics should have nothing to do with it. There is so much material available from so many sources these days that there’s no way to justify a government subsidy.

    Got to pick one nit: “Find a hundred 420 million dollar cuts and you’ve saved 420 billion each year” That should be either a thousand cuts or 42 billion per year. But your point is still valid.

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