< Take the Public Out of Public Broadcasting


Friday, November 05, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In his victory speech on Tuesday night, Republican incumbent Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said he would no longer compromise with Democrats over fiscal responsibility.

JIM DeMINT: Everything I've seen, every compromise, every bipartisan agreement for the 12 years I've been in the House and the Senate has been more spending, more borrowing, more debt and a bigger government. If we can debate how many government programs to cut, how much to lower the debt, then I can work with people. And that’s what we're going to do this time.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the programs consigned to DeMint’s chopping block – public media. About a week ago, he wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Examiner titled Let NPR Fend for Itself on the Market. Well, let's discuss. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, created in 1967, has an annual budget of about 400 million dollars. That money is dispersed to public radio and TV affiliates around the country and indirectly to NPR. To be clear, government funding makes up only a small percentage of most stations’ budgets. For example, here at WNYC we're told it’s around six percent. Nevertheless, in a time of economic recession, should the government reconsider its funding for public broadcasting? Reason.com editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie says yes. Public media was created to serve, quote, “the public interest,” says Gillespie. And what exactly does that mean?

NICK GILLESPIE: The idea of a public interest is philosophically, politically, linguistically incoherent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Linguistically?

NICK GILLESPIE: My enthusiasm ran away with me [BROOKE LAUGHS] there for a second. But I support defunding not because I dislike art, not because I dislike culture or dislike radio or many things on PBS but precisely because I like them. And I think that it’s time to take away the small sliver of funding that allows a lot of political interference and annoyance.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is unusual in that it has forward funding. It’s a few years in advance to minimize direct political interference in its content.

NICK GILLESPIE: The small amount of funding that NPR gets from various sources, from the federal government, that allows people like John Boehner and it allows Democrats at various points to kind of hue and cry. And you pull that plank out from under them, I don't think that the quality and the mission of NPR would suffer and you would shut up loudmouths who are always looking to grab a microphone or get in front of a TV camera. Why should the personnel choices of NPR be of any interest to the Congress of the United States? The short answer is it shouldn't be.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you listen to, say, morning radio, one of the most popular shows on it is Morning Edition – substantive, informative. Would such a program exist if it were as obsessed with the bottom line as so much of the rest of radio is?

NICK GILLESPIE: I am extremely confident that NPR’s nonprofit ethos would survive any cut in federal spending and, in fact, it might even grow stronger. The federal government is broke, and it’s only going to get more and more broke. And at this point we need to say, what are the core functions of government? And I think most people would agree that defense is one of them, courts, maybe citizenship, things like that. The idea that we have an inalienable right to Car Talk or to Sesame Street [BROOKE LAUGHS] being piped in over the air on tax-supported airways, you know, that strikes me as a stretch. And it’s time to rethink that, not because those are bad programs but because they're not core functions of government and they will be funded via other avenues. I think that the analogous model here is religion and religious expression. We all want to live in a world where everybody can worship whatever God they want but nobody is forced to pay for other people’s belief systems, whether we're talking about Presbyterians and Baptists or FOX News enthusiasts and PBS tote bag holders.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess fundamentally this all boils down to what you think of public broadcasting. If you think it’s a left-wing inflected source of information, then there would be no reason to support it. But if you think – you know, going back to that old chestnut, that it actually leads to a more informed electorate that can make a better democracy, then you might have a different view.

NICK GILLESPIE: In my case, this is completely viewpoint neutral. It doesn't matter to me what is being said. It matters how it’s being funded. I mean, every historian of both LBJ and Richard Nixon will tell you that they applied pressure directly and indirectly to over-the-air broadcasters.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is true, but most of that pressure has, in fact, been lifted. I mean, the Fairness Doctrine has been a thing of the past since Reagan.

NICK GILLESPIE: Why not finish the job then and, you know, shut John Boehner up, shut Eric Cantor up, shut Michele Bachmann up from being able to say, you know what, I'm paying for this microphone so it better reflect what I think and what I feel? You know, one of the things that the architects of public broadcasting in the late '60s could not foresee was the vast multiplication of sites of production and consumption of media but also the models.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Although, there certainly is a lot more verbiage. Just having a lot of people yelling at you 24 hours a day does not mean that we are swimming in a salubrious sea of useful information.

NICK GILLESPIE: [LAUGHS] Just as there are more people screaming and shouting, and also uncovering really interesting stories – something like WikiLeaks – there are also agencies and groups and filters that check and double check and triple check. We have never lived in a richer, better time for journalism and for information and for public discourse than we do right now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I totally buy that. Like -

NICK GILLESPIE: And for that reason, screw the public interest if you are going to define it [BROOKE LAUGHS] in some kind of 1965 best-and-the-brightest mentality. That’s an old and dangerous version of the public interest. The public interest is every time people are going online or turning on the TV or the radio and getting information and processing it. And we're going gangbusters. We don't need a tax on that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nick, thank you very much.

NICK GILLESPIE: My pleasure, and the minute that the federal government actually defunds NPR, my checkbook will be open [BROOKE LAUGHS] to at least make up my differential.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You are too kind. Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.