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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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February 1998


The Immorality of PBS Subsidies
Editorís Note, by Timothy Lamer

There are many arguments that can be made against having the government fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gives grants to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).

Previously, MediaNomics has pointed out that the federal subsidy is unnecessary. It constitutes only a small part of public broadcastingís overall budget, and in early 1995 ó when it looked as though the subsidy would end ó private donations to PBS and NPR stations skyrocketed. PBS also could receive a larger portion of the profits from lucrative products which spin off of popular PBS shows (Barney, Sesame Street, Bill Moyersí specials, etc.). If an institution can survive without federal support, as public broadcasting demonstrably can, then taxpayers shouldnít be forced to finance it no matter how worthy it is.

But the most fundamental argument for ending government support for public broadcasting is that the subsidy is immoral and unconstitutional. Sheldon Richman, then with the Cato Institute, made this case in testimony to a congressional subcommittee considering privatization in 1995. Richman noted that the Constitution doesnít give Congress the power to fund journalism and, in fact, such funding violates the First Amendment rights of taxpayers.

To support this contention, he quoted Thomas Jefferson: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." Richman observed that in public broadcasting, as in any other broadcasting system, "someone makes a selection among all the things that could be put on the air," and that "often the selections are controversial" by their very nature. When the system is supported with tax dollars, some taxpayers will inevitably be forced to pay for the voicing of views to which they donít subscribe. "Freedom of speech must include the freedom not to speak," Richman argued, "and that freedom logically entails the freedom to abstain from subsidizing the speech of others." (This argument, by the way, can be made against conservative proposals to have the government fund religion, such as school vouchers.)

Recent economics reporting on PBS has made the problem Richman identified all the more apparent. Documentary producer and former New York Times reporter Hedrick Smithís four-part special Surviving the Bottom Line repeated all of the mantras liberals employ against shareholder capitalism. "The same economic earthquake that has created enormous new wealth for the already- affluent has deepened the economic fault line dividing American society and left millions of middle-class Americans struggling to survive with lower pay, uncertain jobs, temp work, and the competing demands of family and two careers," Smith opined.

In other words, corporate downsizing brought on by overzealous money managers is destroying the lives of everyday Americans and will ultimately hurt American companies. Smith didnít seriously present the arguments that flexible labor markets make American companies better able to produce high-quality products at low prices, and that the very same system that allows large layoffs also creates new opportunities for people throughout society.

Such bias wasnít new for Smith. In his 1994 PBS special Challenge to America, Smith argued that Germany and Japan were superior to the U.S. because "in troubled times, the government helps to provide a safety net [to industry] and in good times, vital support for fragile new industries." Ignored by Smith: The argument that such government support inevitably goes to the politically well-connected and allows such companies to operate inefficiently, draining resources from productive but less well- connected companies.

Smithís conclusion that "a new American Renaissance requires a new mind set, a willingness to learn from rivals as they once learned from us" is especially amusing given that since Challenge to America aired, the U.S. has boomed while Asia has faltered. In the wake of Japanís and the rest of Asiaís economic woes, Smith hasnít yet produced a documentary titled Surviving Industrial Policy.

But the problem here is not that Smithís view of the economy is mistaken (though many think it is); a number of distinguished liberal economists would defend Smithís conclusions. The problem is that there is more than one legitimate side to such issues, but tax dollars are bolstering the propagation of just one sideís ideas and not any otherís. This isnít just biased; itís immoral. At least CBS News and The New York Times are biased on their own dimes.

Why is it that liberals, supposedly the great defenders of individual rights, feel morally justified in getting the government to tax conservatives to advance liberal views?


ó Rich Noyes


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