Cato vs. PBS: A Debate on Federal Funding of Public Broadcasting

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As the Senate Appropriations Committee meets this week to consider the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting we host a debate on government funding of public broadcasting with David Boaz of the Cato Institute, Bill Reed, the president of KCPT in Kansas City and Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. [includes rush transcript]

Monday’s hearing was scheduled to discuss funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides federal money to non-commercial broadcasters, including PBS.

CPB survived a GOP-led effort last month in the House to cut $100 million from its budget. The House, however, did not include more than $100 million dollars in funding for technological upgrades and PBS” Ready-to-Learn program, which subsidizes children’s educational programming and distributes learning materials.

The public broadcasting system still faces a 25% reduction in federal funding next year. This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is to consider the CPB budget, including $146 million worth of programs public broadcasting officials hope to get reinstated.

One witness at Monday’s subcommittee hearing expressed support for doing away with federal funding altogether–David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute. We host a discussion with Boaz as well as Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and Bill Reed, president of KCPT in Kansas City.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One witness at Monday’s subcommittee hearing expressed support for doing away with federal funding altogether, David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute. He joins us on the phone right now from his home in Virginia. We’re also joined in the Washington D.C. studio by Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and on the line from Missouri is Bill Reed, President of KCPT in Kansas City. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! I want to begin with David Boaz. You, yesterday, at the hearing testified on behalf of the Cato Institute. Make your case here.

DAVID BOAZ: Well, the main case that I want to make is that I think it is inappropriate to have a government radio and television network. As I told the committee, we wouldn’t want to have a federally-funded, federally-run newspaper. I don’t think we should have federal networks. And I think part of the reason for that — well, the main reason is we want a marketplace of ideas in democracy. We want lots of voices and I don’t think the government should be subsidizing some voices at the exclusion of others.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get a response to that from Bill Reed, President of a PBS station, KCPT in Kansas City.

BILL REED: Well, the fact is there isn’t a government broadcasting network, and when the Public Broadcasting Act was passed in 1967, the Congress made sure that there would not be a government broadcasting network by taking several steps in that act. One, they created CPB as a private, nonprofit corporation, not a government agency. They charged CPB with the responsibility of providing a heat shield so that there would be no political interference with Public Broadcasting. They prohibited CPB from producing programs, and most important of all, they stipulated that CPB could not be in charge of the interconnection and the scheduling of programs shipped to the stations. And so, in 1969 PBS was created for that responsibility. So the idea that there is some kind of government broadcasting network is a myth.

DAVID BOAZ: Well, that’s a fine theory. But the fact is that it’s taxpayers’ money. We’re taxing everybody in America, and we’re giving it to two broadcasting networks that inevitably have a political spin, a political perspective, and that, I think, is inappropriate in a democracy. We know that most government broadcasting networks around the world are mouthpieces for the government. I’m not suggesting that NPR and PBS are that. But they are groups, they are networks that have a particular point of view. And I think it’s inappropriate for the government to be funding one point of view against another. You said there were all these protections. Imagine someone had suggested ten years ago that the three major broadcast networks are moderately liberal in their orientation, and there ought to be a conservative network, and Rupert Murdoch stepped forward and said, ’I’ll do one, but I’ll need a subsidy.’ Well, I’m sure everybody on this program would have been outraged at the suggestion that the government give money to Fox but agree to keep hands off.

BILL REED: You know, I find it interesting —


BILL REED: This one note drum that people keep beating that we’re some kind of liberal network, when study after study of the American people have shown that they trust Public Broadcasting, and they do not think that we’re biased. And so, you know, we keep hearing these opinions from you and others that you don’t have any facts to back them up.

DAVID BOAZ: I have plenty of facts to back them up. What you have is one fact is that your bias is subtle enough that most of your viewers don’t recognize it, and that’s the most effective bias of all. I always think the conservatives would be more effective if they would learn to make their biases more subtle. But look, when the chief political correspondent of NPR says in a news report there is more than a little racism in opposition to President Clinton’s economic programs, that strikes me as a pretty strong political statement. If you look at the way NPR covered the first year of the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, you find a strikingly more enthusiastic and favorable treatment of Clinton and his economic policy proposals. Can anybody seriously believe that PBS and NPR don’t have a point of view that comes through in their coverage of issues like gay rights and gun control? Now, I happen to agree with that bias on some of the issues, because I’m a libertarian, not a conservative. But I still recognize that my support for gay rights, which I share with the general ethos at PBS and NPR, is a partisan — well, not partisan, but a point of view. And not every American shares it, and not every American should be taxed to advance it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Jeff Chester into this conversation. We’re talking to David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, who testified before Congress yesterday. Bill Reed, President of the PBS station in Kansas City, KCPT, Jeff Chester in the studio in Washington, Executive Director for the Center for Digital Democracy. Jeff Chester?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, Public Broadcasting is vital to this country. Free of commercial pressures, it can provide the kind of news and public affairs and arts programming and community programming that is all too rare on American television today. We need to have an expanded Public Broadcasting system. For the last two years Ken Tomlinson and his conservative backers have been engaged in the campaign to neuter, to change Public Broadcasting and, in particular, to make sure that PBS doesn’t air the kind of hard-hitting investigative programs that have — that American people really require. And indeed yesterday it was said that no one came to the defense of the role that PBS must play in terms of investigative reporting. We need Public Broadcasting. In terms of the Cato Institute’s own Board of Directors, you’ve had Rupert Murdoch on there, currently you have had John Malone. You had two high-level corporate media titans who have used their political power here in Washington to eliminate the ability to have a real diverse media system in broadcasting on cable. Your board members have used their political power to reduce the kinds of choices, to narrow the diversity.

DAVID BOAZ: Well, that’s just —

JEFF CHESTER: We need Public Broadcasting — your current board member John Malone has done more to undermine the potential of cable television to offer diverse programming. He’s even stopped in the past a news channel from appearing during his career. But what we need to do is to remove Ken Tomlinson from the board. Mr. Tomlinson clearly misled Congress yesterday. He said that the poll was made public. And here is the copy of the poll. This poll was never even given to PBS. I’m holding up a copy of the poll that someone leaked to me. This poll was PBS and NPR officials were never even allowed to take the poll out of the room of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So Mr. Tomlinson has misled Congress. He is clearly using this bias canard as a cudgel to tell Public Broadcasting, don’t do any serious hard-hitting investigative programming.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, since you have the poll in front of you, what is the title of the poll? What is the ultimate conclusion of this poll that Tomlinson commissioned but would not release?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, the fact of the matter is Mr. Tomlinson commissioned an initial poll done primarily by a Republican polling firm, The Tarrance Group, along with a Democratic polling firm, Lake, Snell and Perry. He commissioned the first poll, and that poll showed that the overwhelming majority of the American public has been reported, felt there wasn’t a bias problem. Mr. Tomlinson was so dismayed by the first poll that he actually commissioned the second poll. And I have the National Public Opinion Survey #2 here, which I’m holding up. And it’s marked “Confidential.” And what that poll showed, once again, was the overwhelming majority of the public have confidence in the programming on Public Television and Public Radio. They rely on it highly. And, you know, it’s not surprising that an independent survey done in 2002 by the University of Maryland, 2003, about public perceptions about the war, leading up to the Iraq war, showed that those who watched Public Television or listened to Public Radio were the best informed about the various issues than any other medium in this country. So Public Broadcasting is essential.

AMY GOODMAN: David Boaz, I’d like to get your response, but I also wanted to read you something from today’s Washington Post, headlined “Two Big Thumbs Up for Public Radio/TV: New Ombudsmen Praise Programming.” It says: “Is public broadcasting a nest of left wing biases? Ken Tomlinson, of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds public TV and radio, was so concerned about the alleged leftward drift of programs on NPR and PBS that the CPB Chair persuaded his agency to hire not one but two ombudsmen to review and critique NPR and PBS news segments. So what kind of slanted reporting have Ken Bode and William Schultz uncovered since they began work three months ago? Well, as it turns out, not much. Actually, as it turns out, none at all. Instead, Bode and Schultz have been positively glowing in their assessments of the journalism heard on NPR and seen on news shows distributed by PBS, so glowing, in fact, that Schultz and Bode’s reports, which are posted on CPB’s website, could easily be excerpted in the shorthand style of a movie ad quoting favorable reviews. To wit: 'First-rate… Insightful interviews…' In all, two excellent reports. 'Excellent… Informative…' These two reports have a nuanced and balanced view of the situation.” And these ombudsman that were hired come from Reader’s Digest, come from NBC. Your response to this?

DAVID BOAZ: Well, nobody would suggest that there aren’t good reports on NPR and PBS. And certainly I could make the same kinds of statements about lots of the reports. I don’t think that means that there isn’t an overall tilt in the direction, in the kinds of things that are covered and the choice of subjects in the perspective. Maybe we’re all conceding that “Now with Bill Moyers” is left liberal advocacy, and so I don’t have to go into that, but certainly that would be one example. Jeff was talking about a former board member —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me interrupt there. Bill Reed, President of KCPT, you would agree —- No, let me get a response to that. Because you’re taking -—

DAVID BOAZ: Let me respond to what Jeff said about the Cato Institute, which I think was unfair.

AMY GOODMAN: Okay, you can do that, just let’s get Bill Reed’s response on the Bill Moyers program, then we’ll go back to your point on Cato and John Malone.

BILL REED: My response to what?

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of we all agree that Bill Moyers’s program was left advocacy journalism.

BILL REED: Look, Bill Moyers is retired. I find it amusing that Mr. Tomlinson and now Mr. Boaz continually use Bill Moyers as the whipping boy for liberalism on Public Broadcasting. Bill Moyers is a great journalist. If he’s liberal, so what? We had William Buckley on for 30 years on Public Broadcasting, the leading conservative in this country. We have John McLaughlin on, Tony Blankly every week, Pat Buchanan, expressing their views. What is wrong with that? Over time the idea is that we want to have all voices on Public Television.

AMY GOODMAN: David Boaz, your point on the Cato Institute Board Member John Malone?

DAVID BOAZ: Well, Jeff talked about a former board member, Rupert Murdoch, and a current board member, John Malone, and I’m not sure exactly what the point was, because I certainly don’t get my ideas from them. But he did say they have tried to limit diversity in the media, and I think that’s just silly. Rupert Murdoch created an alternative network. Remember the era of three major networks? Murdoch created a fourth. And it has a different perspective. And I don’t happen —

JEFF CHESTER: Can I respond?

DAVID BOAZ: — to like Fox News, but I think it’s good that there is diversity on the air. And John Malone, in addition to having funded a hundred networks, helped to create C-SPAN. And surely nobody is arguing that C-SPAN hasn’t brought diversity and public affairs programming to television.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester?

JEFF CHESTER: Can I respond? Look, Bill Moyers did do commentaries, which one could label perhaps as liberal. I would see them as journalistic. But what people are forgetting is that the Moyers show contained some of the best investigative and hard-hitting programming available on American television today. What we want to see is more of that kind of programming appearing on Public Television and certainly on Public Radio in the future. And it’s that hard-hitting journalism — they’re labeling it as liberal advocacy. What it is really is hard-hitting investigative reporting. And they don’t want to see that kind of programming that we can — we can debate about Cato and Murdoch and Malone, but that is not the point at the moment. I’m happy to. But we have to insure that this attack on the ability of Public Television, in particular, to engage in serious journalism is rebuffed. And that’s why I hope that, you know, your listeners will join with Free Press and Common Cause and other groups trying to reform Public Broadcasting.

DAVID BOAZ: All the left wing groups are very enthusiastic about keeping PBS and NPR alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Reed of KCPT, I want to just ask something very specific to what is happening this week. The Senate Appropriations Committee voting on whether to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not as far as David Boaz is saying of Cato Institute that it should be zeroed out. What would this mean for your station in Kansas City and for other stations? Can they survive without a Corporation for Public Broadcasting or even with the cuts that are being talked about now, around 25%?

BILL REED: No. Look, Mr. Boaz, yesterday, said that, 'Oh, it's only 15%. So we can do without that money.’ That — he doesn’t understand how delicately balanced the funding for Public Broadcasting is. Very quickly, here in Kansas City, we raise money in a variety of ways. We have auctions. We have special events. We have memberships. We have pledge drives. We sell some of our services. We release some of our facilities. We get some small state support, and we get some support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides very, very important support by the way of community service grants to Public Broadcasting stations. It is not a straight 15%. KCPT receives about 12% of its budget in the community service grant. But the important fact here is that small stations in the United States receive 30%, 40%, 50% or more of their operating budgets through these community service grants. If those grants go down, those small stations go down. Those small stations, in the aggregate, give a lot of money, pay a lot of money to PBS for a national program schedule. Once that money starts going away, you have a chain reaction that starts to happen in this country. And Public Broadcasting indeed would be in peril if these cuts were really made as we heard them proposed a couple months ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Boaz, are you for the cutting of funding, for example, to Voice of America?

DAVID BOAZ: Well, I think Voice of America is a different issue. Voice of America is part of American foreign policy. And I think there are pros and cons to having that, but, you know, one of the rules about Voice of America has always been that to avoid political propaganda in the United States, you could not show Voice of America programs in the United States. And over the years there have been frustrations when it was rumored that Voice of America had done a wonderful program on the Czech revolution or something. But it couldn’t be shown here. So that’s an attempt to say that to the extent the government produces broadcasting, we don’t show it in our country, it’s only part of our foreign policy overseas. So I think it’s a separate issue.

AMY GOODMAN: David Boaz, I want to thank you for being with us, Vice President of Cato Institute. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, and Bill Reed, President of KCPT in Kansas City.

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