Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 7/15/2005 [Archive]

Separating News and State

Separating News and State

By Bill Steigerwald

David Boaz of Cato Institute on defunding pbs/npr

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 they cover.

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 way?

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 extent.

Q: And we wouldn't even need Air America.

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. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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