news and state
David Boaz of Cato Institute
on defunding PBS/NPR
by Bill Steigerwald
July 18, 2005
Conservatives and Republicans frequently threaten to cut or eliminate
federal funding for PBS and NPR, but it never happens. David
Boaz, a veteran libertarian commentator, book author and key
executive at the Cato Institute, is a regular consumer of both
public radio and public TV, but he still wants to see their taxpayer
subsidies abolished. On Monday in Washington, D.C., he made his
best argument for the separation of news and state to the Senate
Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.
I talked to him Wednesday by phone from his offices at Cato.
Q: What was the gist of your
testimony in favor of defunding public broadcasting?
A: We wouldn't want the federal government to publish a national
newspaper, and we shouldn't want the federal government running
a radio and television network. The reason we don't want that
is that democracy means lots of voices, debating, arguing, contending,
and we shouldn't have the government putting its thumb on the
scales of that debate. The government shouldn't be subsidizing
one side at the expense of others. If you subsidize a newspaper
or a network, it's inevitable that that newspaper or that network
is going to reflect the opinions, the perspectives, the biases
of the people who run it.
Q: What's your strongest argument
-- to liberals -- for ending the federal funding of PBS and NPR?
A: The reason that liberals should be concerned is that a government-funded
network inevitably entangles journalists in politics. They don't
like Ken Tomlinson, a Republican-appointed chairman of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, inquiring about the politics of the
shows that he's funding. But that comes with the territory. If
you're going to have the taxpayers pay for something, then the
taxpayers have the authority to ask what they're paying for.
So if you want to keep government out of journalism, you need
to keep government money out of it.
Q: What's the lamest arguments
liberals and the defenders of government subsidies make?
A: I think their lamest argument is that there is no liberal
bias on these networks. I just don't see how you can maintain
that with a straight face. As I said to the committee, I'm a
libertarian, and so I'm not opposed to the liberal view on everything.
I appreciate a lot of the cultural coverage of NPR. I appreciate
NPR's skepticism about the religious right and their tilt in
favor of gay rights, social tolerance and freedom of expression.
But I just do not see how you can listen to NPR on a regular
basis, or watch the Bill Moyers show or watch the award-winning
documentary series "Frontline," and not see liberal
bias. ... All the left-liberal groups jumped into the battle
as soon as NPR and PBS were threatened. They want those networks
to continue and to continue being funded because they do see
them as an effective way of spreading liberal ideas.
Q: Even "Frontline,"
which does some excellent documentaries, is biased in the issues
A: Exactly. As I said to the committee, I have never seen a "Frontline"
documentary about the burden of taxation, or the burden of regulation,
or the number of people who die because they can't get access
to drugs because of the FDA, or the number of people who have
used a gun to prevent a crime.
Q: Those are all John Stossel
episodes on "20/20."
A: They certainly could be, and John Stossel doesn't pretend
not to have a point of view. And in the great worldwide marketplace
of ideas, it's fine to have Bill Moyers do a show and John Stossel
do a show. I just don't think the taxpayers should pay for one
and not the other.
Q: What's the moral argument
for defunding NPR and PBS?
A: It is that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize news
and opinions. Thomas Jefferson said this 200 years ago. I believe
the quote was, "To compel a man to furnish contributions
of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves
is sinful and tyrannical." When you give taxpayers' money
to ideas, it's very similar to giving taxpayers' money to religion.
We made a decision in this country: We're going to have freedom
of religion, but we're not going to have taxpayers forced to
support religions they may not agree with. Similarly, it's a
moral objection that taxpayers should not be forced to contribute
money to the propagation of opinions they disagree with.
Q: How would PBS pay its own
A: Well, it's a $2.5 billion enterprise right now, public broadcasting
overall. The government gives them $500 million, and that actually
includes some special funding this year. So overall, they get
15 percent of their budget from the federal government. I don't
know their budget well enough to know precisely what their lowest
priority items are, but you could deal with a 15 percent drop
in revenue. Plus, the most effective pledge week in NPR or PBS
history would be the one that starts, "The mean Republican
Congress has cut out our federal funding." The phones would
light up, because if they lost 15 percent of their funding and
they went to their loyal listeners and told them that, they clearly
would have an outpouring of support. So in the long run they
might have even more money.
Q: And both NPR and PBS, unless
they are complete idiots, would almost certainly be able to thrive
on their own?
A: Yes, I believe that's true. As I said, there might be some
consolidation, some elimination of low-rated programs -- things
like that. But I believe they would survive and thrive, and they
might become more interesting and innovative and provocative.
And I might find them even more politically objectionable. But
without having to worry about the Republican Congress, they might
feel more free to exercise their editorial judgment to the fullest
Q: And we wouldn't even need
A: (laughs) Well, I don't much think we need Air America now.
I love hearing people say, "We need a liberal radio network."
I always think, "What is NPR?"
Bill Steigerwald is
a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review.
©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.
E-mail Bill at email@example.com
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