The Agenda

Jesse Walker on Why the CPB Is Never Actually Defunded

Jesse Walker of Reason makes a really important point:

The Williams story will be stale by the time the new Congress is in a position to do anything about it, making it less likely that there will be a big push to add anti-NPR conditions to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s next check. Now, if Republican leaders want to keep the issue alive between now and then, I’m sure it won’t be hard to keep finding stuff on public radio that offends rank-and-file conservatives. But even then, there’s a difference between wanting to keep the issue alive and actually intending to end the network’s subsidies. These standoffs never end with public broadcasting getting defunded. The point of the exercise isn’t to cut NPR loose; it’s to use the threat of cutting NPR loose to whip the network into line.

And that is why the publicly-funded nature of the CPB is so objectionable, as Walker explains:

 

Every time this happens, I fantasize that this time, just maybe, the broadcasters won’t blink. NPR can certainly survive without the subsidies. It gets very little direct money from the CPB—less than 2 percent of its budget. In practice, to be sure, it depends on the government far more than that: About 40 percent of its money comes from its member stations, which usually receive their own federal subsidies and are frequently affiliated with publicly funded universities. Still, the network has been picking up other sources of support, just this month receiving a $1.8 million grant from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations—already more than half the amount it got directly this year from the feds. As for the affiliates, nothing quite boosts a public radio station’s pledge week like the possibility that those Republican meanies might pump CS gas into the Morning Editioncompound and set the place on fire. [Emphasis added.]

And the 40 percent that flows from members stations presumably derives in part from pledges and sponsorships, not just taxpayer funds. 

More importantly, a number of plans have been floating around since the 1990s that would transmute the CPB from a de facto arm of the government into an independent trust with a private endowment. One effect of this would be to prevent anyone offended by NPR’s personnel decisions from being required to give the place any more support. Another would be to shield public broadcasters from any politician attempting to stick his snout into their editorial choices. The idea has thus attracted support from both sides of the conventional political spectrum, with free-market economists endorsing the concept and with left-wing documentarians boosting it via groups such as Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. And so I imagine a new ending for this recurring show, one where public broadcasters and their critics decide to call each other’s bluff and the whole rotten system comes tumbling down.

But that’s a pipe dream, not a prediction. 

And why is a pipe dream? In Jesse Walker’s view, it’s because establishment Republicans are perfectly happy to fund public television and radio if they get to call the shots. That is exactly the attitude that conservatives need to fight against. I can see the logic behind gradually zeroing out funding for CPB, as Matt Yglesias suggests — say we create a 5-year timetable.

The main problem isn’t the money, though that’s certainly a problem for cash-strapped taxpayers. It is the lack of editorial independence. NPR listeners deserve better.

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