February 13, 2004,
For years, the government-owned Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has been the recipient of large public handouts, taxpayer dollars that have flowed to National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). These tax dollars from wealthy, middle-income, and lower-income Americans have subsidized programming geared to a disproportionately upper-income audience.
The dollars flow to CPB and then to PBS and NPR (and member stations) in the form of direct handouts and tax deductions for contributions made by individual viewers. In 2003, CPB received a $363 million federal appropriation. That's an incredible 45 percent increase in just four years. The time has come to end this taxpayer-fed gravy train.
When CPB was created in 1967 before the Internet, satellite TV, the VCR and DVD, and cable TV a stronger case could be made that there was a public benefit in subsidizing other voices and programming. Now, with the media explosion of the past quarter century, there is little justification for public subsidies.
Why continue to underwrite Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse when viewers can watch the Food Network (where the latter often appears)? Why subsidize history programming on PBS when viewers have the History Channel, or can rent history documentaries at their local video store? Along with all the stations on free radio, listeners can tune in over the Internet to hundreds of stations from around the world. And for less than $10 a month, listeners can receive the 100 channels of XM Radio in their cars and homes.
More, PBS and NPR often reveal a substantial leftward bias although they have perhaps made some improvement in this area. Recently, NPR's ombudsman harshly criticized host Terry Gross for being unfair to conservative Bill O'Reilly in an interview. Gross repeatedly referenced material from Al Franken's book that is highly critical of O'Reilly. As the ombudsman observed, "By the time the interview was about halfway through, it felt as though Terry Gross was indeed 'carrying Al Franken's water.'" He further stated, "Unfortunately, the [O'Reilly] interview only served to confirm the belief, held by some, in NPR's liberal media bias . . . by coming across as a pro-Franken partisan rather than a neutral and curious journalist."
Conservatives such as O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity have certainly been successful on commercial radio and television. Liberals may like this no better than conservatives are fond of Terry Gross. But only the unhappy conservatives are forced via government subsidies to underwrite the salaries of those they disagree with.
In discussing NPR, Richard Rahn observes that the public subsidies and leftward tilt are related events: "NPR will never be fair and balanced. Because it depends on government, it will always support government spending over the rights and needs of taxpayers. It attracts a staff that is hostile to the private sector, and that loves government."
PBS and NPR have proven quite capable of generating healthy cash flows. Successful PBS children's programming has produced tremendous revenues. For example, the show Dragon Tales which had received over $4 million in federal subsidies now brings in buckets of cash through sales of books, DVDs, CDs, and other items. Another PBS series, Clifford the Big Red Dog, has also generated big bucks from traditional sources as well as from lucrative deals with candy and cereal makers.
But beyond great success in marketing, PBS and NPR get generous support "from viewers like you." Most recently, Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, gave the staggering sum of $200 million to NPR. Surely, with this massive new amount in hand, NPR is more than capable of completely weaning itself from taxpayer dollars.
In the 1960s, when television consisted of the three major networks, there was more rationale for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and for having tax dollars flow to PBS and NPR. Today, we live in a different world. It's time to recognize that taxpayers can get a far better return on their dollars elsewhere.
John Berthoud is president of the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union. Write to him c/o 108 North Alfred Street, Alexandria, Va. 22314.