As a devoted listener to National Public Radio (uh oh, the secret’s out!), I was particularly interested in 2005 congressional testimony I stumbled upon over the weekend arguing to defund public broadcasting. David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the libertarian Cato Institute, delivered these remarks before the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies nearly six years ago; yet, the arguments still stand today.
Like Boaz, I appreciate NPR and PBS’s high-quality programming and am “sympathetic to some of public broadcasting’s biases, such as its tilt toward gay rights, freedom of expression, and social tolerance and its deep skepticism toward the religious right.” And I, too, “share many of the cultural preferences of its programmers and audience, for theater, independent cinema, history, and the like.”
What’s more, I value reading and listening to points of view that differ from mine. NPR regularly exposes me to new perspectives and gives me knowledge to better defend my own ideas.
Nevertheless, I remain concerned about state-sponsored media. As Boaz points out, “the problem is not so much a particular bias as the existence of any bias.” In political science, there’s an entire literature devoted to media effects, agenda setting, priming, and the impact of biases on public opinion.
Boaz is right:
If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it’s the news and public affairs programming that informs Americans about government and its policies.When government brings us the news — with all the inevitable bias and spin — the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy. Journalists should not work for the government. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize news and public-affairs programming.
Many people have denied the existence of a liberal bias at NPR and PBS. Of course, the most effective bias is one that most listeners or viewers don’t perceive. That can be the subtle use of adjectives or frameworks — for instance, a report that “Congress has failed to pass a health care bill” clearly leaves the impression that a health care bill is a good thing, and Congress has “failed” a test. Compare that to language like “Congress turned back a Republican effort to cut taxes for the wealthy.” There the listener is clearly being told that something bad almost happened, but Congress “turned back” the threat.
The fact is, NPR and PBS only receive a fraction of their support from the federal government – about 15 percent. And the truth is that NPR listeners and viewers are wealthier than the average American. In fact, as Boaz points out, a 1999 NPR study commissioned by Mediamark Research found “its listeners are 66 percent wealthier than the average American, three times as likely to be college graduates, and 150 percent more likely to be professionals or managers.” Mediamark discovered the same findings in 2003.
But, as Boaz points out:
Tax-funded broadcasting is a giant income transfer upward: the middle class is taxed to pay for news and entertainment for the upper middle class. It’s no accident that you hear ads for Remy Martin and “private banking services” on NPR, not for Budweiser and free checking accounts.
Boaz – who’s always an elegant writer – saves the best for last:
A healthy democracy needs a free and diverse press. Americans today have access to more sources of news and opinion than ever before. Deregulation has produced unprecedented diversity-more broadcast networks than before, cable networks, satellite television and radio, the Internet. If there was at some point a diversity argument for NPR and PBS, it is no longer valid. We do not need a government news and opinion network. More importantly, we should not require taxpayers to pay for broadcasting that will inevitably reflect a particular perspective on politics and culture. The marketplace of democracy should be a free market, in which the voices of citizens are heard, with no unfair advantage granted by government to one participant.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s time listeners like me put their money where their mouth is. If I enjoy NPR so much, it’s time I start supporting them with my own money — not the American people’s.