After This Election, Does PBS Deserve Public Funding?
During the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney injected the issue of funding public television into the campaign. He was widely attacked by liberals in the media, and by President Obama himself, for wanting to kill off Big Bird.
Is that really such a bad idea? The behavior of some in public media during this election suggests that it isn't.
Based on the reporting of several of its major contributors, one has to question PBS's objectivity during the current election. On Oct. 25, PBS highlighted a TIME poll showing Obama leading Romney 49% to 45% in the key battleground state of Ohio. Just four days later, the Cincinnati Enquirer showed the race tied, while the Rasmussen poll showed Romney ahead by 2 points. On what basis did PBS select the TIME poll for its report?
On Oct. 26, Gwen Ifill provided her "take" on the election. Among her observations: Obama commands 80% of the non-white vote, and the nation "is becoming less, not more, white." Take that, white voters.
Just imagine the situation reversed. What if PBS had been reporting on the chances of a white presidential candidate, noting that the candidate controlled 80% of the white vote and snickering that the nation was becoming more, not less, white? That sort of comment would earn most journalists a ticket to Palookaville, but because we're talking about an "historic" black president who happens to be a leftist as well, PBS deems such talk acceptable.
Another Ifill tidbit: Obama's field offices outnumber Romney's by 131 to 40. I suppose that reminder was intended to afford comfort to nervous PBS viewers. Perhaps it affords comfort to Ms. Ifill as well. She is, after all, author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Beginning with Obama's "stunning presidential victory," according to its published description, the book focuses on "the bold new path to political power" for a new generation of African-American politicians. Ifill sounds like just the right person to provide a thoroughly objective account of this election, doesn't she? In any case, she is one of those PBS has chosen to cover it.
On Thursday, Nov. 1, PBS's blog "Morning Line" reported that Romney and Obama were returning to the campaign trail following a brief hiatus after Hurricane Sandy. The lead illustration for the piece showed a young Obama volunteer preparing election handouts in Wisconsin. In the same report, PBS chose to lead with the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, which showed Obama with a slight lead in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and a sizable lead in Iowa. Only well into the piece was it revealed that a Fox poll showed the candidates tied. PBS commented that the NBC poll showed that "early voting is helping the president." No comment on Fox.
Then there's the indefatigable Judy Woodruff suggesting that Hurricane Sandy may be the October surprise that puts Obama over the top. Featuring that photo of the president in the sizeable embrace of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the article points out that presidential responses to October surprises are what win elections. And the liberal media has been working overtime to suggest that Obama's response is tip-top, despite the fact that he did nothing out of the ordinary. Declared disaster zones, passed out relief aid, acted "presidential." Back in 2008 he said he could lower the level of the oceans. He obviously didn't do that.
As for National Public Radio, the last few days have featured stories on how teacher phone banks "could give Obama a boost" in Ohio, "the unlikely political bridge" (Obama and Christie), and, again, how Hurricane Sandy could turn the election for Obama. There's also a story about "concerns" over Ohio billboards that inform voters that voter fraud is a felony. Well, voter fraud is a felony, but some in the media seem to think that pointing it out is racially motivated. That suggests an admission that voter fraud is more prevalent among minority voters than among others -- something I did not expect from the liberal media.
One could go on. PBS and NPR have run hundreds of pieces on the presidential race and on local races as well. On Sept. 5, 2012, PBS ran a report on Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren entitled "Barack Obama Will Level the Playing Field for All Americans." That report on Warren's Democratic National Convention speech ran more than 15 minutes. I was not able to locate any extended reporting by PBS focused on Scott Brown, Warren's GOP opponent in Massachusetts. Just a lapse, I suppose.
Why, then, do I believe that PBS and NPR should not receive public funding? Because their programming -- not just their election coverage, but much of what they do the rest of the time -- is not in my opinion representative of the values of most Americans.
Recently, for example, Frontline teamed up with American Experience to produce a four-hour documentary on Mormonism, seemingly timed to precede the election by less than a week. For its part, American Experience rarely drops the tired mantra of race, class, and culture, and it seems to find American imperialism and white guilt everywhere it looks. Even Nova, once an excellent source of science education, has become a vehicle for preaching about the evils of global warming, pollution, and industrial development.
Even Sesame Street seems a bit too collectivist, too universalist, too dovish for many viewers. Teaching kids to share and get along is well enough, but indoctrinating them into the purported dangers of global warming and the supposed evil of the profit motive crosses the line. And that is what many viewers believe Big Bird and company are up to.
Even if public television and radio did make an effort to represent the values of the taxpayers who fund them, is there anything in the Constitution that remotely supports the idea of funding public media?
Just the opposite is true. The doctrine of enumerated powers makes it clear that the federal government has no role in funding media. Not only is funding state media beyond the scope of enumerated powers, but it also runs counter to the intention of the First Amendment. When advanced media come to be controlled by government, the ability of the people to regulate opinion via their own practice of free speech is short-circuited. Government then becomes the arbiter of opinion in just the manner that public television and radio have attempted to over the past half century.
So even if public media made a good-faith effort to represent those who fund it, including the two thirds of the public who define themselves as conservatives and the third who identity with the Tea Party, it would still have no legitimate role in our constitutional democracy.
In reality, though, PBS and NPR never will restrain themselves. Even after decades of criticism from the right, these liberal media continue to produce programs that are offensive to large numbers of taxpayers. They appear to be staffed by irresponsible adolescents (some of them, like Bill Moyers, in their seventies or eighties) whose reason for living is to flout the conventional values of their fellow citizens. It is just too much to expect those fellow citizens to continue funding them.
Dr. Jeffrey Folks has published many books and articles on American culture, including his recent book, Heartland of the Imagination (2011).