“Non-Commercial Media” = Fine; “Public Media” = Not So Much

by on February 4, 2011 · 5 comments

I’m not one of those libertarians who incessantly rants about the supposed evils of National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcast Service (PBS).  In fact, I find quite a bit to like in the programming I consume on both services, NPR in particular. A few years back I realized that I was listening to about 45 minutes to an hour of programming on my local NPR affiliate (WAMU) each morning and afternoon, and so I decided to donate $10 per month. Doesn’t sound like much, but at $120 bucks per year, that’s more than I spend on any other single news media product with the exception of The Wall Street Journal. So, when there’s value in a media product, I’ll pay for it, and I find great value in NPR’s “long-form” broadcast journalism, despite its occasional political slant on some issues.

In many ways, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS, has the perfect business model for the age of information abundance. Philanthropic models — which rely on support for foundational benefactors, corporate underwriters, individual donors, and even government subsidy — can help diversify the funding base at a time when traditional media business models — advertising support, subscriptions, and direct sales — are being strained.  This is why many private media operations are struggling today; they’re experiencing the ravages of gut-wrenching marketplace / technological changes and searching for new business models to sustain their operations. By contrast, CPB, NPR, and PBS are better positioned to weather this storm since they do not rely on those same commercial models.

Nonetheless, NPR and PBS and the supporters of increased “pubic media” continue to claim that they are in peril and that increased support — especially public subsidy — is essential to their survival.  For example, consider an editorial in today’s Washington Post making “The Argument for Funding Public Media,” which was penned by Laura R. Walker, the president and chief executive of New York Public Radio, and Jaclyn Sallee, the president and chief executive of Officer Kohanic Broadcast Corp. in Anchorage. They argue:

The CPB’s federal appropriation this fiscal year is $430 million – about $1.39 per American. More than 70 percent of that funding goes to local stations around the country, accounting for, on average, nearly 16 percent of their annual budgets. For some, such as New York Public Radio, CPB funding is a smaller – although important – part of the operating budget because their audience size and urban location enable them to rely on a mix of membership, foundation and underwriting support. For stations in rural or economically hard-hit areas that aren’t able to attract as much other support, CPB funding is their lifeblood.

But regardless of whether the federal subsidy to local stations is trivial or substantial, like most other supporters of “public media,” Walker and Sallee jump right past the moral discussion of whether it is right to force citizens to subsidize media they may not find to their liking. Again, as it pertains to NPR at least, I am not one of these people, but I am entirely sympathetic with those — mostly of a conservative persuasion — who find it offensive to be forced to use their tax dollars to support programs they find objectionable for whatever reason.  And while I do not believe that NPR and PBS are as hopelessly biased as some conservatives suggest, I think it’s fair to say that there’s more than a hint of liberal bias in many of their programs and reporters. (Personally, I do not mind some of that bias, but I do find it silly that some of these reporters, editors, and their defenders continue to pretend no such bias exists. Even with a liberal slant to some of their reports, they are still great reports.)

The reason this is important is because forcing citizens to fund even more media content they might find objectionable will lead to endless political controversy and increased public tensions. My former PFF colleague Randy May, now president of the Free State Foundation, correctly argues that:

when government-supported media—that is, media supported with our tax dollars—decide what content should be filtered or amplified regarding issues of public importance… government’s involvement tends to exacerbate public tensions in a way that makes civil discourse more difficult. This is because government content decisions are seen by many as tilting the public policy playing field in a way inconsistent with their beliefs.

Sure, I understand that we taxpayers are forced to subsidize many things we don’t like or even find offensive.  But that’s hardly a good argument for forcing to subsidize even more, especially when it comes to speech and media. Should liberals be forced to help fund the next Fox News or Rush Limbaugh? Should conservatives have to support the next Keith Olbermann or Bill Moyers?  Should independents or libertarians have to subsidize any of this?  As Thomas Jefferson famously put it in the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” That is, we naturally — and rightly — resent subsidizing speech that is antithetical to our own values.

But won’t public media wither and die without taxpayer subsidy, as Walker and Sallee suggest?  I don’t think so. First, to reiterate, public media is already well-diversified and has multiple funding streams to fall back on such that the 16% that comes from taxpayers could be replaced by other sources as it is phased out. Moreover, as the defunding process unfolds, it presents public media with the perfect opportunity to lock in long-term funding from those other sources. Public media supporters like to claim that $430 million (or $1.39 per taxpayer) per year isn’t that big of a burden.  OK, sure, but that argument cuts both ways. If they really feel it isn’t such a huge expense, then certainly we can find other sources to cover that $1.39 per year!  In fact, I can imagine a massive CPB/PBS/NPR fundraising campaign based entirely on “Doing Your Part to Cover the Gap” or other such gimmicks.

What I am getting at here is that the time has come to make a firm break with “public media” notions but to simultaneously embrace “non-commercial media” as a viable and important part of our modern media marketplace. “Public media” will always be a contentious term and be subjected to endless politicization.  “Non-commercial media,” by contrast is more value-neutral and should be easier for citizens of all ideological stripes to accept since it implies media that is not supported by advertising or subscriptions but which is also free of forcible taxpayer subsidy.

Again, CPB is already 84% of the way there! We can find creative ways to bridge the gap and cover that remaining 16%.  I’d happily double my annual contribution to my local NPR affiliate today if they agreed to drop federal subsidies.  And I bet plenty of other people and organizations would step up to the plate and meet this challenge, too.

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