Monday, February 14, 2011

No Room for Cookie Monster at the Tea Party

By Mike Dorf

The effort now underway in the House to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) raises a number of very different sorts of issues that warrant untangling.  After doing so, I'll focus on the question I find most interesting because it has constitutional overtones.

First, the immediate impetus for seeking these cuts now is the bipartisan agreement that the federal budget overall needs to be cut, or at least reined in.  I think that consensus is wrongheaded in two ways: (1) for reasons that Neil Buchanan has repeatedly articulated on this blog and that Paul Krugman and even Ben Bernanke (testifying last week in Congress) have also outlined, the recovery is still sufficiently fragile that a substantial reduction in federal spending is likely to do more harm than good, even if one is worried about long-term deficits and debt; and (2) Congress isn't really serious about the stated goals of deficit and debt reduction, because if it were, defense spending would be on the table, and Congress wouldn't have extended the upper end of the Bush tax cuts.  But I don't want to focus much attention on these points here because it is clear that the current slash-the-budget mood simply provides cover for eliminating the CPB, a longstanding goal of many conservatives.

Second, some of the argument over whether the CPB is needed addresses an issue that is tangential to the contestants--namely, whether such funding is based on outdated assumptions about the media landscape.  The argument against funding is that with the proliferation of cable, satellite, and internet channels for educational, local, cultural, and news programming, the CPB is unnecessary.  Especially with respect to television, the original idea was that the major networks would use their limited broadcast slots for whatever was most likely to attract viewers and thus advertisers, and so in order to provide people with "better" programming, public subsidies were needed.  However, the argument goes, now it's much easier to distribute niche programming, so the mass market assumptions are outdated.  On the other side, one can see things as pointing in the exact opposite direction: Craigslist, etc., have greatly reduced revenue from newspapers, networks have gone to cheap-to-produce programming like "reality" shows, and overall it's harder than ever for quality programming to make enough money to cover costs.  Then again, local public tv and radio stations have diversified their revenue sources over the years too, and the internet makes it easier for them to raise money on a "shareware" model.  I don't have a strong view about any of this.  I suspect that the elimination of the CPB would hit public tv and radio hard initially but that they would ultimately survive, and perhaps even become better if less worried about Congress looking over their shoulders.  But I don't think that the opposition to the CPB is motivated by these considerations.

The real reason for the fight is ideological.  Conservatives generally favor markets over government-funded programs, but not across the board.  (Show me a farm-state Senator who seriously wants to slash agricultural subsidies and I'll show you a one-term Senator.)   The ideological component with respect to public broadcasting is based on the content of the broadcasting.  Many conservatives believe that educational programming on PBS skews towards "liberal" messages of multiculturalism and toleration (though it looks like the rumors about Bert and Ernie did not originate among conservatives).  Many conservatives also believe that news programming on the likes of NPR skews liberal.  Juan Williams is a useful poster boy in this cause, but he's only that.  Conservative complaints about public broadcasting long predate the fiasco of his firing.

Whether PBS and NPR have a "liberal bias" strikes me as an unhelpful question.  Is NPR to the left of Fox News?  Sure.  Is it way to the right of Al Jazeera English?  Absolutely.  Does it sit astride the exact median point of American public opinion on every issue?  That's not a meaningful question, assuming as it does that positions on all questions align along a one-dimensional left/right axis and that even if they do, the median point of American public opinion would be a sensible place to come to rest.

In recent years, some opponents of the CPB have accepted the proposition that any time government funds speech it will end up taking a position on controversial issues, and that therefore the government simply shouldn't fund any speech.  But I doubt that anyone really means this.  Government funds speech when it urges kids to say no to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, for example, or when it publishes a website identifying where former sex offenders live.  Certainly some people oppose these messages too.  But with the exception of the Establishment Clause, the Constitution generally does not forbid the government from funding one-sided speech.  (Campaigns urging children to exercise need not be balanced by equally well-funded campaigns urging them to sit on the couch.)

Conservative opponents of the CPB say that if the government is going to fund speech, it should do so neutrally, and that if it can't do so, it should simply get out of the business.  But of course, there is no such thing as neutral speech.  At a minimum, it requires editorial discretion to decide what subjects to cover and what range of viewpoints on that subject to include.  So the argument against the CPB is rigged: Because it is conceptually impossible for speech to be neutral, it follows inevitably from the premise that government can only fund speech neutrally, that government cannot fund speech at all.

In principle, there could be reasons to worry about government speech.  In a country in which dissent is suppressed, government-funded news media become a tool of oppression.  But the idea that PBS and NPR are crowding out private speech in the U.S. today is simply beyond laughable.

In the past, when conservatives have tried to zero out the CPB, its defenders have called on Big Bird and the other denizens of children's tv, knowing that an awful lot of voters across the ideological spectrum depend public television, regarding it as a substantially lesser evil than planting their youngsters in front of the commercially driven candy and toy ads children's programming.  The answer to the question of whether the strategy works again this time will say a great deal about the next two years of American politics.


Unknown said...

It's hard to support using taxpayer dollars for the CPB in this day and age and I agree it'll likely do just fine if we turn off the federal spigot.

American citizens understand a value proposition far better than our representatives in Washington do. They pay cash to see movies, they pick and choose subscription magazines and are able to find blogs and internet offerings that meet their needs which are not subsidized by tax dollars. If they want better TV they are willing to pay for it, with charities and philanthropic organiztions leading the way for years. It's reported that american charitable giving is over $300 Billion per year, this ought to be sufficient to sustain 'public' television.

Unfortunately access to the world of public TV and radio comes with strings attached, even charities find themselves attacked by the diversity police, demanding control over the donations so as to steer more to minority or gay or womens programming, as if the whole purpose of charitable giving was not to help people in the first place. So, to keep the contributions flowing, and relieve taxpayers from having to fund CPB on top of everything they (and their grandchildren) are paying for now, cut the CPB loose.

Citizens and charitable foundations and organizations would then be free to watch what they want, and support things they wish to see, without the government and hostile activist groups trying to direct the cash stream towards themselves.

tjchiang said...

I think you are attacking a strawman. Granted, the government funds some speech that the overwhelming majority of people find unobjectionable, such as messages against drugs. You then argue that it would not be unconstitutional for the government to fund speech in most cases, that is fair enough too.

But it does not follow that "any time government funds speech it will end up taking a position on controversial issues." Your examples precisely demonstrate the opposite. Big bird is not a controvertial issue; nor is discouraging people from taking drugs. Sure, some people will object to it, but very far from the median. And whether the CPB is in accord with the median actually kind of matters.

To take the opposite example to yours, surely you wouldn't argue that the CPB should fund Democratic party attack ads. But the objection is entirely based on their content. And it is not as if that funding would "crowd out" the other side's message. Rather, it is precisely the principle that public funding should not be partisan. And conservatives think that outfits like NPR are at least biased, if not outright partisan -- and you don't even bother deny the charge.

tjchiang said...

Or to say it perhaps more simply: when the next Republican president and Congress give double the funds given to the CPB to Fox News, and Democrats howl in protest, I look forward to your argument that public subsidies for Fox News is constitutional, that the Democratic opponents are ideologically motivated (as if it were a bad thing), that whether Fox News has a conservative bias is an "unhelpful question," that the idea that funding Fox News will crowd out other speech is laughable, and that Democratic arguments against funding Fox News is "rigged" since the only alternative to funding Fox News is funding nothing at all.

Michael C. Dorf said...

chickie correctly understands me as not taking a substantive position in this post on the wisdom of CPB funding and thus makes a policy point that does not contradict anything I say (although I disagree with some of what chickie says as a matter of policy).

tjchiang, I believe, misunderstands me to be saying that because funding of speech can't be neutral, all funding of speech must be equivalent as a matter of policy. But I did not say that, or at least I did not intend to say that. The reason that funding of Democrats over Republicans or vice-versa wouldn't happen is that both parties are strong enough in the political process to take care of themselves. But consider that the two parties have effectively chosen to fund themselves at the expense of minor third parties through the matching funds program for Presidential elections (at least when candidates don't opt out). If the First Amendment rules applicable to government as regulator applied in the funding context, the thresholds for matching funds would be problematic precisely because they disadvantage truly minority viewpoints. But those rules don't apply.

Now, it's also the case that I would oppose spending public money on blatantly partisan political speech (regardless of what direction it went). I agree that this would be inappropriate on policy grounds and perhaps one could even make an equal protection argument against it (although it would have to run through the First Amendment somehow). tjchiang's Fox News example is troubling precisely because Fox News is, in many respects, the house organ of the Republican Party in a way that NPR and PBS simply are not for the Democratic Party. (MSNBC has tried to duplicate Fox News for the Dems but has largely failed.)

The key point, of course, is that conservatives THINK that NPR and PBS are like Fox News for liberals--or worse, since they think Fox News is "fair and balanced." And there's no way to explain that they're just wrong that is not itself a "political" statement in our current discourse. That was my main point, and I meant it analytically, not normatively.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

This is easily the best blog post title of the year so far.

tjchiang said...

Mike, with that clarification, I think you are succumbing to the bias that you accuse conservatives of. You say that conservatives think that Fox News is fair and balanced and the NPR is spouting lefty propaganda. But you make it seem somehow self-evident that NPR and PBS simply are not for the Democratic Party, even while acknowledging that conservatives disagree with you and that this is a political statement, and then dismissing the entire question by labeling it "unhelpful" as if it cannot be analyzed.

This becomes nothing more than the saying "conservatives are wrong because they just are," or "reality has a liberal bias." It does not help the discussion. It quite severely poisons it.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Professor Chiang, at the risk of inviting further meta-debate, let me suggest that your latest intervention veers into hyperbole. To recap: I said that as I view it, MSNBC is much closer to a liberal analogue of Fox News (albeit an unsuccessful one) than NPR or PBS is. I went on to acknowledge that people who regard Fox News as "fair and balanced" would disagree with me about NPR and PBS, and that our disagreement would be political all the way down. Therefore, I said, arguing about whether PBS and NPR are neutral is "unhelpful." I did so because such an argument assumes the existence of a view from nowhere, whereas the whole argument about neutrality occurs within politics. I could see how you might disagree with some of this. But I don't understand how you could think that my concession-filled post and comments "severely poison[]" discussion. On the contrary, in your case, they had the effect of provoking discussion.

tjchiang said...

Professor Dorf, if the sense you say the discussion is "unhelpful" is that it is political all the way down, then it contradicts the entire tenor of your post. The way such political questions get resolved in our system is "elections matter."

So the answer would be that, yes, the Republicans are ideologically motivated, and so are the Democrats defending NPR, and there is nothing wrong with that. It would be unhelpful for us academics to discuss it, but it is entirely helpful for politicians to do so, and for voters to ultimately make the call. That seems very far from what your post is suggesting, which is that nobody should be talking about the ideological tilt of NPR because it is an issue that cannot be analyzed (the quote is "assuming as it does that positions on all questions align along a one-dimensional left/right axis and that even if they do, the median point of American public opinion would be a sensible place to come to rest"). That, to me, was an attempt to shut down a discussion that some people should have, even if not us academics.

Crispian said...

It was a good title. And I agree with your basic point.

Just to be clear, I think liberals would just as likely bemoan a lack of neutrality as a reason for defunding NPR/PBS if the perceived shoe were on the other foot.

Whether Cookie Monster gets shut out will depend a lot on whether the funding is perceived as crucial to NPR/PBS (it certainly doesn't look like it). If it isn't, the government will save a tiny bit of money thanks to political motivation.

tjchiang said...

To say it another way, if the issue is inherently political, "the median point of American public opinion would be a sensible place to come to rest." What you regard as a questionable assumption is in fact the right answer, lacking as we do any other objective metric.

Paul Scott said...

The idea that NPR is liberal is just absurd. If anything, like most media, it makes the mistake of assuming that there are two sides (and only two sides) to every debate and that both are legitimate.

In Law School I was a member of the Federalist Society. After Law School, I practiced law and I was still a conservative (well, a pretty far right libertarian, I've never been a social conservative). Even then I saw Fox News for what it was. Even then, NPR was the only thing worth listening to on the radio.

As Mike says, MSNBC is closer to Fox News (and they are mostly a failure because they still refuse to sex things up with a Colbertesque "truthiness"). Most programing on NPR is not even news at all, much less politically slanted news.

If there is a legitimate political point to the funding or defunding of NPR it is that its audience is mostly intellectuals, which in turn are mostly liberals. So why should the government subsidize entertainment for a group of individuals who can (and do) fund it themselves?

It is really this - the continued attack from the Right against "intellectualism" that fuels the Republican desire to defund NPR. It has nothing real to do with a "liberal news bias" no matter what the rhetoric.

Michael C. Dorf said...

tjchiang: No, given the political nature of the underlying fight, the median point of public opinion would be a PREDICTABLE point for public funding of public media to come to rest, not a SENSIBLE one. We can expect the market to do a pretty good job of covering the median point about everything. The justification for public funding--if there is one--is to promote something different, including a perspective that rejects the two-and-only-two-sides-to-every-issue mentality that Paul notes.

Now I'm going to leave these comments and move on. Feel free to talk among yourselves.

tjchiang said...

Professor Dorf,

That is why I say you are shutting down discussion. You can't say that something is inherently political and not capable of further analysis, and then say that the opinion of the median voter is an "unhelpful question" that is somehow not even relevant to the discussion. You might not like where the median voter sits (though if it is an inherently political question not capable of analysis, how are you to second guess?); but surely it is the starting point for any discussion.

To say that the analysis is inherently political but one cannot refer to the median voter is to entrench the status quo, since there is no argument to be made against it. Any reasoned argument will be met with: "the question is political, there is no reasoning to be had"; and a political argument will be met with: "well, nobody should care about what the median voter thinks." You rigged the game in your favor.

Joe said...

"So why should the government subsidize entertainment for a group of individuals who can (and do) fund it themselves?"

Quite a few listeners of NPR don't have the means to "fund" such things purely by themselves. The gov't provides a slight subsidy (helpful as it might be) and given that NPR is as you say far from one-sided, it comes off as a net positive.

Paul Scott said...

I am all for supporting NPR. I just think the question posed is a legitimate one, as opposed to any rhetoric about some completely absurd Fox news equivalency.

I tend also to agree with Mike, that NPR would do just fine without the government subsidy, but I am not the least bit offended by it.

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