< Should Government Fund Public Broadcasting?


Friday, October 05, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It was an indelible moment in this week’s presidential debate.


GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY:   I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird, actually like you too. But I’m not gonna – I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. 


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:   We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.


But that’s what we heard last night. 


How about that?



WOMAN:   Elmo –




BROOKE GLADSTONE:   Romney was hardly the first politician to raise the sensitive issue of Sesame Street’s importance to the nation. It happens all the time, and with it comes the inevitable question, what would happen if that support abruptly went away? The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, created in 1967, has an annual budget of about $446 million. That money is dispersed to public radio and television stations around the country, and indirectly to NPR. As it happens, government funding makes up only a small percentage of many stations’ budgets. For instance, here at WNYC, we’re told it’s around 6%. Nevertheless, in a time of economic recession should the government reconsider its funding for public broadcasting? In 2010, Reason.com Editor Nick Gillespie told us: yes.

NICK GILLESPIE:   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. 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 if 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.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  If you listen to, say, morning radio, one of the most popular shows 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 gonna 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


- 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 sixties 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:   Just as there are more people screaming and shouting and also uncovering really interesting stories, 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 –


- 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, 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.

BOB GARFIELD:   Around the time we originally spoke with Nick Gillespie, Steve Coll, the president and CEO of the New America Foundation, wrote an open letter to the Federal Communications Commission. In it he argued we should reformulate media policy here in the U.S., starting with more funding for public media, which, Coll says, was created to raise the level of public discourse.

STEVE COLL:  The purpose was to add to the mix the kind of programming and mission that commercial broadcasters will not find profitable but which is nonetheless in the public interest. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't have a commercially dominated media. I am arguing that the commercially dominated media does not produce public interest journalism adequately.

BOB GARFIELD:  The fact is, Steve, that public broadcasting has become kind of a political piñata. It is deemed to represent a liberal worldview that some on the right just don't want to subsidize in any way, shape or form. Is there a way around that philosophical objection to the tone or the values of public broadcast?

STEVE COLL:  First, we shouldn't over-interpret the criticism but we should listen to it. At the same time, in order to carry out its role, like the Federal Reserve or the Securities and Exchange Commission or your local prosecutor, it requires a certain degree of professional independence. And so, the best thing to do is to strengthen the independence of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, while holding it accountable across the political spectrum.

BOB GARFIELD:   So Nick Gillespie’s solution is to defund public broadcasting and end the argument about whether a public broadcast is too politically inflected. You have a slightly different [LAUGHS] approach. You say as a society we should double down; we should increase the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. What’s the scheme?

STEVE COLL:  The idea that originates in the law that commercial broadcasters using public spectrum have an obligation to serve the public in exchange for that privilege, that idea has evolved into a farcical system in which the commercial broadcasters essentially fill out forms that they keep in their own offices saying, well, we did some crime reporting yesterday, so we've educated the public about spousal abuse or child abuse. It doesn't serve the public but it wastes a lot of money. So the essence of it is that you relieve the commercial broadcasters of their expensive and ineffective public interest obligation and instead extract spectrum usage fees that can be directed to strengthen public media. And, in addition, the FCC is overseeing multi-billion-dollar new spectrum auctions, and it would be quite simple to tack into those auctions user fees that could be directed to public broadcasting. And I promise you as a percentage of the profits that they will make from those spectrum auctions, the fees [LAUGHS] we're talking about are a fraction of what they pay their investment bankers just to get to the table.

BOB GARFIELD:  That said, your open letter to the FCC predated by about three days [LAUGHS] a gigantic sweep in the midterm elections of Republicans into Congress. I'm gonna take a wild stab here and say you haven't gotten a call from John Boehner’s office saying, why, Steve, tell me more about your plan.

STEVE COLL:  [LAUGHS] It’s early - he’s making a lot of calls this week. I do think that it is in the interests of all political actors in the United States to have a healthy public broadcasting system. Look, what is it like to be a professional politician in this environment? The Internet can come alive with false rumors about your conduct. If you go on television to try to make yourself heard, you've got 20 seconds and it may be a shouting match with somebody on the other side. But it is in their mutual interest to construct, as Britain has, a public broadcasting system where civil, deep, serious, inclusive debate about the issues of the day can take place. I mean, if you've lived in Britain and you turn on their morning public broadcasting shows, you could not paint them politically but what you do find is that everybody who is a political actor has time to make their arguments. 

BOB GARFIELD:  You’re talking about a continent that has primetime programming devoted to literary criticism. These people are not like you and me. [LAUGHS]

Is there any chance that a long form political conversation and debate would get any kind of audience if, you know, there’s not someone from Fox News or MSNBC to immoderate the discussion?

STEVE COLL:  But we have that evidence now, and it’s in the ratings of your network. Look at the combined audiences of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They exceed the combined audiences of the morning shows of the major networks.

BOB GARFIELD:  That large audience, though, isn't it like the very elite that the likes of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin like to denounce?

STEVE COLL:  It has demographic limitations; it tends to be white and rural and old, in comparison to the national population. And part of the purpose of revitalizing public media would be to make it younger and more like America in its ethnic and racial makeup, but it’s too large to be elite.

BOB GARFIELD:  Steve, as always, thank you so much.

STEVE COLL:  My pleasure, Bob. Thanks for having me on.

BOB GARFIELD:  Steve Coll is president and CEO of the New America Foundation.



Steve Coll and Nick Gillespie

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Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone