Friday, October 5, 2012

PBS Must Be Killed Because It Shows Government Works

 PBS is by far the most trusted TV news source, NPR listeners show up as the best informed or the second-best informed, and a majority of Americans watch or listen to PBS or NPR on a weekly basis. Americans, as is their habit, dramatically overestimate the amount of money public broadcasting costs them and yet remarkably still want that funding maintained or increased. Most importantly, PBS is not just the most trusted source of news, it is by one reputable study, repeatedly the most trusted institution in America by a country mile. This is a phenomenal success story. PBS and NPR are educating the public (their mission), the public trusts them, and for pathetically little money in both absolute terms ($1.35 per American per year) and in comparison to their international peers (most of whom get at least 10 times the amount of per-citizen funding, and some far far more).

This is not a fluke. Public broadcasting is a great success story of modern governance. Not just in America, but the public broadcasters in Canada (CBC), Australia (ABC), Britain (BBC), Ireland (RTE), the Netherlands (NPO) and many other nations are popular, informative and even entertaining. They bring programming that for-profit broadcasters do not. Off the top of my meagre head, I can name Doctor Who (BBC), Degrassi High (CBC), Little Mosque on the Prarie (CBC), Nova (PBS), Top Gear (BBC), Frontline (PBS), The Fifth Estate (CBC), The Nature of Things (CBC), Four Corners (ABC), Panorama (BBC) and of course Sesame Street (PBS) as internationally renowned and popular programs brought to the world by public broadcasting. I listen to a lot of podcasts on my MP3 player in the car and the ABC and Radio New Zealand put out some fantastic informative programming. Public broadcasting works well basically everywhere I have ever paid attention to it (admittedly I'm mostly limited to English speaking countries). All of this serves to explain why Movement Conservatives want to kill PBS, and so far as I am aware, want to kill public broadcasters in every nation where they hold power.

Conservatives cannot abide this lasting testament to the competence and workability of public institutions. It belies all their ideological predictions. "State" broadcasters (as they pejoratively call them) are supposed to behave like the Soviet Union's Pravda or North Korean television. Propaganda and lies, dated production values and bland, uninspired presentation. If their ideas actually reflected reality, there would be no need for conservatives to make a point of killing PBS, public opinion would have long killed off the public broadcasters in every free society. It defies them that this hasn't happened. Decades after Thatcher declared "there is no alternative" and Reagan said "government is the problem" these institutions remain, weakened somewhat, but still valued.

If you imagine the world today in some alternate universe where there were no public broadcasters, and you arrived there from here, and suggested that someone set one up, you would be laughed out of the room by the conventional wisdom. Again and again we hear how government cannot work, government is inefficient, bureaucrats just sit on their butts unless they have some hard driving greedhead flogging the whip of quarterly results to keep them motivated. People in that alternate world wouldn't believe that government could successfully operate national television and radio networks that were informative, popular and entertaining. I suspect many people in this universe believe government cannot do so, and yet right under their noses, they are.

It's obvious that Romney's glib and by-the-way remark to Jim Lehrer has touched a nerve in America. People don't think about public broadcasting very often, but here is the Republican nominee for President officially promising to kill public funding for one of the last few things (along with Courts and the Military) that a majority of them (76% in PBS' case) actually trust. If you think about the recent polls on public broadcasting government funding, the fact that maintaining or increasing that funding remains far more popular than cutting it should be remarkable, as these surveys take place in very tough economic times. America is not alone in this regard, Ireland, who have suffered far worse than the US in the economic collapse still maintain RTE with almost as much public funding as America gives its broadcasters (over $200M in 2011).

Don't let them get away with it. There's very little reason to believe PBS and NPR could survive the loss of their public funding in any worthwhile or recognizable form (if at all). America already grossly underfunds these broadcasters which already significantly reduces their effectiveness. I get as annoyed as any other liberal at "nice polite republicans" and their frequent forays into beltway conventionalism and "both sides do it" false equivalencies. Yet I see this as a consequence of NPR's inadequate public funding. Having to rely on various wealthy donors to survive, is it any suprise that the editorial slant of NPR skews towards the views of that class of people? For all that NPR is still far and away better than anything else on the average American's radio dial. I even include most progressive talk radio stations in that too. Sirius Left and whatnot are better than listening to Limbaugh or some overly excited Top-40 formula station, but generally nowhere near as informative or sophisticated as NPR. Even if you really like listening to liberals call in to grouse about conservatives on the air to an appreciative host, that is qualitatively different from what NPR does with its airtime. It's not a fluke that for-profit broadcasters do not do programs like Wait Wait, Prarie Home companion, Dianne Rehm or even Car Talk. Public broadcasting fills a different niche, one that is not fulfilled by for-profit operators. Conservatives try and say that if liberals like PBS so much, we should fund it out of donations from our own pockets. This defeats the purpose of a public broadcaster. A charity network is a qualitatively different creature, even assuming such a thing could survive.

To play off something a twitter wag dubbed, it isn't surprising that a Fat Cat wants to eat the Big Bird. Don't let Wall Street consume Sesame Street.

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