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Defund public broadcasting and set it free

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
  • Matt Welch says he likes to listen to public radio and has supported it
  • But he says he has also been unfreely giving to public broadcasting through taxes
  • He says it's corporate welfare that makes taxpayers fund other's cultural preferences
  • Welch: Defunding public media would free it from political interference, help taxpayers

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason magazine.

(CNN) -- Let's drain some of the tension out of the room: I don't care what fundraisers at radio stations say in private conversations. I listen to my local National Public Radio affiliate every morning.

I'm glad PBS' "Frontline" exists, I think "To the Point" host Warren Olney is a national treasure, and I have freely given money to public broadcasting in the past.

Problem is, I have been unfreely giving money to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for decades now, as have scores of millions of people who do not share my qualified fondness for what those pleasant-sounding "erudites" produce.

The amount of federal money given to the CPB is a rounding error of a rounding error in our gargantuan federal budget: 0.01% of $3.834 trillion, if I have my math right. In both cost savings and generalized country improvement, removing taxpayer money from NPR and PBS ranks distantly behind ending ethanol subsidies or agricultural subsidies or the Department of Agriculture altogether.

But the public broadcasting subsidy shares something in common with corporate welfare schemes everywhere, whether for Archer Daniels Midland (one of NPR's biggest sponsors, incidentally), film productions or your local professional sports venue: It forces taxpayers to fund other people's cultural preferences.

That's what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack admitted this week in a remarkable interview with Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein. Farm subsidies, Vilsack maintained, are necessary because "There is a value system (in rural America) that's important to support. ...These are good, hardworking people who feel underappreciated."

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Though it's frequently dressed up in (bogus) economics, the obscene practice of handing out tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to finance state-of-the-art professional sporting venues is at heart a cultural question, too. Some of us (raises hand) love to spend our leisure time at nice ballparks, some of our wives (hi, honey!) believe that live professional baseball is "the death of the soul." Why should she be forced to pay one dime to the Washington Nationals?

This week's brouhaha has underlined the single biggest problem with public broadcasting from the fan's point of view: namely, that with taxpayer financing, no matter how small, inevitably comes political considerations and even outright interference.

As Gawker's Hamilton Nolan argued, "It's not worth it. As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government, it will be forced to appease and cater to congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war."

We have been down this road many times before, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich. Conservatives become outraged at the liberal slant of public broadcasting, threaten to cut funding and succeed instead in getting more conservatives on the airwaves (while funding, with rare exception, continues to increase).

As Jesse Walker wrote in a useful history in Reason, "The point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose to whip them into shape."

What did Sting teach us? If you love someone, set them free. Should NPR lose its federal funding tomorrow, we would see the mother of all pledge drives, and I would be first in line to contribute. As a friend told me this week, "I would actually start giving them money if they'd stop taking it from me." NPR has one the best media brands in the country; you don't think George Soros would be willing to up his annual contribution to cover the shortfall?

De-coupling from the federal government would allow NPR to sell advertising. Its executives could talk as much trash as they want to about Republicans and Tea Partiers, and few people would care.

We no longer would be subjected to this perennial sideshow and obsequious tip-toeing around political sensibilities. And best of all, at a time when governments at every level are out of money, we wouldn't force taxpayers to fund the listening habits of people who hate them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

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