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Heritage's Mike Gonzalez: Stop forcing taxpayers to fund public broadcasting

| Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
PBS President/CEO Paula Kerger is sounding the alarm about public broadcasting's future if federal funding is axed. She said that stations dependent on federal funds couldn’t survive without it, including many in rural or underserved areas. (Willy Sanjuan | Invision | AP)
Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP
PBS President/CEO Paula Kerger is sounding the alarm about public broadcasting's future if federal funding is axed. She said that stations dependent on federal funds couldn’t survive without it, including many in rural or underserved areas. (Willy Sanjuan | Invision | AP)

This month, one of President Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society” programs marks a half-century. It's not the War on Poverty, Medicaid or the Voting Rights Act. It's public broadcasting. And it's high time Congress stopped forcing taxpayers to subsidize it.

When Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act on Nov. 7, 1967, he spoke of a future in which noncommercial broadcasters would function as nationwide replicas of ancient Greece's “agora,” or marketplace. But he added a dark warning: If mishandled, they could “generate controversy without understanding” and “mislead as well as teach.”

Conservatives quickly realized it was not going to be the agora.

PBS wasn't yet a year old in 1971 when Antonin Scalia, then a 35-year-old White House lawyer, warned President Richard Nixon that they were being “confronted with a long-range problem of significant social consequences — that is, the development of a government-funded broadcast system similar to the BBC.”

Since then, there have been efforts under every Republican administration except Gerald Ford's to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the vehicle for funding PBS and NPR.

President Donald Trump's original 2018 budget would have ended federal grants for public broadcasting, but the budget Congress recently passed punts on the issue. It does not provide new funding for the CPB, but does allow for appropriations bills with advance appropriations for CPB to move in the Senate. That means the CPB will receive nearly a half-billion dollars in advance appropriations included in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus bill.

Republican presidents keep trying to stop taxpayer funding of the CPB for a simple reason: While public broadcasters create what is unquestionably a quality product, that product skews to the left.

NPR and PBS insist they just report the news with no bias. And it is true that NPR, PBS, et al., do not broadcast government propaganda. What they do represent are the views of a particular group — those of the politically correct elite left — whose assumptions frame public affairs programming on public broadcasting. The views of this group almost always favor government control of or involvement in everything from health care to the environment to the media.

The difference here is taxpayer involvement.

These problems were well understood by both sides 50 years ago, when Congress held hearings on public broadcasting. Conservatives demanded no editorializing or even any type of public affairs programming.

So why the persistent failure of all previous efforts to relieve the half of the country that votes conservative from paying for public broadcasters? As Scalia warned Nixon, defunding would be “politically difficult in view of ... the generally favorable public image which CPB has developed.”

The reason for that is that PBS, NPR and the others hide behind their original educational remit. As George Will put it earlier this year, “Often the last, and sometimes the first, recourse of constituencies whose subsidies are in jeopardy is: ‘It's for the children.'”

But NPR and PBS are not really for the children anymore, if they ever were, which is why conservative leaders must now find the intestinal fortitude to free Americans from the tax obligation to fund them.

Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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