Time to pull the plug on public broadcasting

August 01, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Conservatives rightly say the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is akin to the body politic's appendix -- vestigial, purposeless and occasionally troublesome. But the CPB is currently useful in revealing the emptiness of Republican praise of limited government.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, of Louisiana, was one of two Democrats who supported the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America, and in 1995 he changed parties. He is a conservative who favors the theory of limited government and the practice of protecting, with tariffs, Louisiana crawfish from the competition of Chinese crawfish. His enthusiasm for the CPB indicates that he is having a hard time getting the hang of being a Republican. But, then, so are many other House Republicans.

The Commerce Committee subcommittee Mr. Tauzin chairs was poised to increase funding for the CPB, which subsidizes public television and radio, when the fuss erupted about public television stations swapping mailing lists with political organizations, mostly Democratic.

The resulting uproar, a distraction from the larger point, may actually have benefited public broadcasters: By promising to desist from such political stupidity, the broadcasters have quelled any remaining resistance to their role as expensive examples of cultural redundancy.

Specious arguments

Created in 1967 as a filigree on Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the CPB was supposedly necessary because the relatively few broadcasting outlets catered to the lowest common cultural denominator. The rationale for public broadcasting was marvelously sealed against refutation: Government must subsidize alternative programming precisely because few people want it.

Thirty-two years later, in a 500-channel environment, this rationale is as absurd as public television's recent slogan "If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" Who? The History Channel, Discovery, Arts & Entertainment, Bravo, the Outdoor Channel, the Travel Channel, Nickelodeon, CNN and scores more. And all of them do something public television does not-- they pay, as opposed to consume, taxes.

The public television lobby still argues that no matter how many choices the market offers, government must offer other programming. Still, "concern" for "children" is the card that presumably trumps all others nowadays, and the CPB plays that card vigorously in defense of its subsidies.

At the June 30 hearing of Mr. Tauzin's subcommittee, Robert Coonrod, CPB's president, said loss of government support would be "devastating." But government provides just 15 percent of public broadcasting's funds, while various private interests parasitic off public broadcasting make huge sums selling paraphernalia based on the characters from "Sesame Street," "Barney & Friends," and "Teletubbies" and other such programs.

No subsidies for newspapers

Newspapers, which should recoil from government participation in media (what would newspaper editors think of a Corporation for Public Newspapers?), continue to editorialize about the necessity of public television. And at the June 30 hearing some public broadcasting officials even asserted that the economy gets a $12 billion boost from workers made more productive by basic adult education on public television.

At that hearing Kevin Klose, president of National Public Radio, gave a virtuoso rendition of the self-congratulatory gush characteristic of subsidized broadcasters. NPR, he said, "is beyond public service -- it's a national treasure" providing "enlightened reporting" and "cultural programs that celebrate the human experience." NPR is a network of about 700 federally subsidized stations; the government thinks America's almost 9,500 commercial stations are insufficient.

But the prize for preposterousness was taken by LeVar Burton, host of the PBS children's television series "Reading Rainbow." He let loose the requisite gush: PBS is a "shining light" . . . it helps "to grow young minds into thoughtful individuals and caring human beings . . ."

Then he displayed a cell phone that flips open and said: The reason we have such phones is that "some kid grew up watching `Star Trek' and saw Captain Kirk reach behind to that place on his hip and pull that thing out and call Scotty on the ship. That kid then grew up, became an engineer and designed a device that is as common to us today as the bread toaster."

Well. Mr. Burton gave no evidence, there being none, for his fanciful history of the cell phone. But even if his history were not nonsense, "Star Trek" was on commercial television.

So how did his fairy tale about technology justify subsidies for public television? There is no justification for it.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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