Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Public broadcasting: Fair and balanced?

The fight over public broadcasting is coming to a head nicely. The Right has been playing a long game, with a steady drumbeat about liberal media bias culminating in a House Committee proposal to eliminate some funding for NPR and PBS [1]. The Left is late to the game with claims of Republican partisanship in running the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), though it's being helped along nicely by the unabashedly political approach taken by Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush-appointed Chairman [2].

Though it pains me as a pinko-liberal and long-time fan of NPR to say this, I think the Right is onto something.

I've been a member of KUOW, my local NPR news station, for more than a decade, and I love their news coverage and smart-pants entertainment shows. NPR?s programming seems neutral and fair to me [3], which I value.

However, something's wrong when a liberal like me begins to have doubts about public broadcasting's neutrality, as demonstrated by KUOW's schedule [4]. It runs quite a few distinctly left-wing shows, with no countervailing right wing crazies; when you do hear zealots, they're lefty zealots. While in some cases it's just the topic choices that have a liberal aroma (The Power of Voice, Living on Earth, various minority interest shows), others are blatantly on the far left fringe like Alternative Radio, whose recent contributors include Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel. KUOW Speaker's Forum highlights voices predominantly on the left, or on topics the Left cares about, like Thomas Frank agonizing over the class divide. KUOW used to carry RadioNation hosted by The Nation journalist Mark Cooper; it's now a podcast. The only show even vaguely right-of-center is Marketplace; but that's only on the right to those who believe that commerce is a crass and degrading activity which leads to moral collapse.

(I'm so used to Garrison Keillor's avowed Democratic bias in A Prairie Home Companion that I don't even think of it as political...)

I like NPR, and I like the fact that it's essentially free -- umm, well, paid for out of our taxes, as well as through subscriptions and foundation grants. I like its approach and I like its programming (with the exception of some of the shows mentioned above, which set my teeth on edge), and I would hate to see shows going off the air.

However, the deal only works if the programming is non-partisan in total, so that Republicans are just as happy having their taxes pay for NPR as Democrats [5]. That's definitely not the case with KUOW, and I suspect it's not the case for NPR in general.

The fact that these cuts are being opposed by moveon.org and Common Cause [6] underline my point: Democrats like this thing more than Republicans do. They wouldn't like it so much if it weren't favorable to them, or at least consonant with their world view. Republicans don't like it, and they feel left out. One could argue that Republicans just want to cut all government spending: while that's true in general, there's something deeper going on here. The Right feels that the Left is getting a free ride with government-subsidized broadcasting that aligns with their world view. I think they're right.

Public broadcasting is in a bind. Most of its support base - members, foundations, and underwriting businesses like it's current left/liberal bias. They pay the piper, and they are entitled to call the tune. However, since some of its funding (and I can't figure out precisely how much, but probably in the region of a few tens of percent [5]) comes from government, it at the same time has to maintain a charade of being politically unbiased.

Since (if?) public broadcasting is supported only in small part by taxpayer dollars, it should just cut the cord. Go cold turkey, and forget about government funding.

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[1] NY Times, June 10, 2005, Panel Would Cut Public Broadcasting Aid, abstract

[2] For example, it seems Mr Tomlinson secretly retained conservative journalists to report on political objectivity in Bill Moyers' "Now" program, NY Times 21 June 2005

[3] Some supporters of public broadcasting also praise it for being "non-commercial". They can't mean "free of commercials", since the underwriting messages largely come from companies, who are certainly out to reap commercial benefit from their support. The term probably means "not owned and run by a large company". I can see that this is attractive to many on the Left, though it means little to me. In the days when I had cable TV I found nothing worth watching on public TV, and a lot of informative material on the History Channel, Discovery, Bravo, etc. And if I wanted leftish news I could watch CNN; I wasn't dependent on the News Hour.

[4] KUOW's program schedule: http://www.kuow.org/schedule_week.asp. My comments apply to the schedule published on 21 June 2005.

[5] I haven't found a straightforward description of NPR's funding. The NPR ombudsman gives an introduction here, and NPR shows some pie charts here. It feels like a shell game; funding from the CPB amounts to 1-2% of NPR's direct budget, but a large chunk of money must come from CPB indirectly via the 30% of revenue in programming fees from member stations. The CPB and the University of Washington provided 10% of KUOW's budget according to a rather uninformative annual report. The Ombudsman is noticeably vague on this point: "Some NPR stations can receive up to 15 percent of their budgets from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other stations in underserved areas can get more. The big city stations get a lot less. So to the extent that those stations pay fees to NPR, some of that money comes indirectly from the CPB." CPB's annual appropriation is almost $400 million (link). CPB provides some information about the provenance of the $2.3 billion in revenue for public broadcasting as a whole, but I couldn't find details of where the money goes.

[6] MoveOn's call to action here; Common Cause's here

1 comment:

ianf said...

Has there been any follow-up on how NPR is using the Kroc endowment (http://www.npr.org/about/press/031106.kroc.html)? I've never seen any and heaven knows member stations continue to cry on the air how there is no money to support public radio.

I listen to NPR a lot in the car (alternating with CNBC :-) and agree that they air a number of fringe programmes. That's fine so long as it's balanced, which it doesn't feel like. I find myself looking askance at the radio more often these days at reporting that is biased in terms or angle. I don't see some Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy here; just the result of an inbred organisation suffering Groupthink. We see it here at work too...