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the CPB is needed addresses an issue that is tangential to the contestants--namely, whether such funding is based on outdated assumptions about the media landscape.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  However, the argument goes, now it's much easier to distribute niche programming, so the mass market assumptions are outdated.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.