NPR Isn't 'Left Wing,' It 'Leads to a More Informed Electorate' and 'Better Democracy'?

November 9th, 2010 5:07 PM

The public-radio show "On The Media" explored the debate over defunding public broadcasting on Saturday -- but utterly stepped around any evidence from certain conservative media watchdog groups that NPR or PBS have a liberal bias. Host Brooke Gladstone perfectly characterized how the NPR elite arrogantly conceive of their mission: some say they have a liberal bias, but they are merely seekly to build a better, more informed, more thoughtful democracy. As usual, liberalism and enlightenment are the same thing:

I guess fundamentally this all boils down to what you think of public broadcasting. If you think it’s a left-wing-inflected source of information, then there would be no reason to support it. But if you think – you know, going back to that old chestnut, that it actually leads to a more informed electorate that can make a better democracy, then you might have a different view.

Speaking up for defunding (and bashing conservative Republicans) was Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason magazine. Later, co-host Bob Garfield brought on former Washington Post editor Steve Coll for the liberal-overdrive position of massively increasing federal support for taxpayer-funded media.


GARFIELD: The fact is, Steve, that public broadcasting has become kind of a political piñata. It is deemed to represent a liberal worldview that some on the right just don't want to subsidize in any way, shape or form. Is there a way around that philosophical objection to the tone or the values of public broadcast?

COLL: First, we shouldn't over-interpret the criticism but we should listen to it. At the same time, in order to carry out its role, like the Federal Reserve, or the Securities and Exchange Commission, or your local prosecutor, it requires a certain degree of professional independence. And so the best thing to do is to strengthen the independence of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting while holding it accountable across the political spectrum.

Just like his Sunday Washington Post op-ed, Coll suggested his solution: listen to conservative critics, and then insure the public broadcasting system is completely insulated from any critique they might offer. Garfield suggested Coll's solution won't be well-received by the incoming Republican House majority:

GARFIELD: That said, your open letter to the FCC predated by about three days [Laughs] a gigantic sweep in the midterm elections of Republicans into Congress. I'm going to take a wild stab here and say you haven't gotten a call from John Boehner’s office saying, “Why, Steve, tell me more about your plan.”

COLL: [Laughs] It’s early. He’s making a lot of calls this week. I do think that it is in the interests of all political actors in the United States to have a healthy public broadcasting system.  Lok, what is it like to be a professional politician in this environment? The Internet can come alive with false rumors about your conduct. If you go on television to try to make yourself heard, you've got 20 seconds and it may be a shouting match with somebody on the other side. But it is in their mutual interest to construct, as Britain has, a public broadcasting system where civil, deep, serious, inclusive debate about the issues of the day can take place. I mean, if you've lived in Britain and you turn on their morning public broadcasting shows, you could not paint them politically, but what you do find is that everybody who’s a political actor has time to make their arguments.

GARFIELD: You’re talking about a continent that has primetime programming devoted to literary criticism. These people are not like you and me. [Laughter] Is there any chance that a long form political conversation and debate would get any kind of audience if, you know, there’s not someone from Fox News or MSNBC to immoderate the discussion?

COLL: But we have that evidence now, and it’s in the ratings of your network. Look at the combined audiences of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They exceed the combined audiences of the morning shows of the major networks.

GARFIELD: That large audience, though, isn't it like the very elite that the likes of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin like to denounce?

COLL: It has demographic limitations. It tends to be white and rural and old in comparison to the national population, and part of the purpose of revitalizing public media would be to make it younger and more like America in its ethnic and racial makeup. But it’s too large to be elite.

Gladstone, who denounced the idea of liberal bias as a musty old Nixon-era "canard" that leads to "false balance" in the midst of a uniformly liberal discussion on PBS last year, still pushed that view on Gillespie, who was resolutely agnostic on the bias issue:

GLADSTONE: If you listen to, say, morning radio, one of the most popular shows on it is Morning Edition – substantive, informative. Would such a program exist if it were as obsessed with the bottom line as so much of the rest of radio is?

GILLESPIE: I am extremely confident that NPR’s nonprofit ethos would survive any cut in federal spending and, in fact, it might even grow stronger. The federal government is broke, and it’s only going to get more and more broke. And at this point we need to say, what are the core functions of government? And I think most people would agree that defense is one of them, courts, maybe citizenship, things like that.

The idea that we have an inalienable right to Car Talk or to Sesame Street being piped in over the air on tax-supported airways, you know, that strikes me as a stretch. And it’s time to rethink that, not because those are bad programs but because they're not core functions of government and they will be funded via other avenues. I think that the analogous model here is religion and religious expression. We all want to live in a world where everybody can worship whatever God they want but nobody is forced to pay for other people’s belief systems, whether we're talking about Presbyterians and Baptists or Fox News enthusiasts and PBS tote bag holders.

GLADSTONE: I guess fundamentally this all boils down to what you think of public broadcasting. If you think it’s a left-wing-inflected source of information, then there would be no reason to support it. But if you think – you know, going back to that old chestnut, that it actually leads to a more informed electorate that can make a better democracy, then you might have a different view.

GILLESPIE: In my case, this is completely viewpoint neutral. It doesn't matter to me what is being said. It matters how it’s being funded. I mean, every historian of both LBJ and Richard Nixon will tell you that they applied pressure directly and indirectly to over-the-air broadcasters.

GLADSTONE: That is true, but most of that pressure has, in fact, been lifted. I mean, the Fairness Doctrine has been a thing of the past since Reagan.

GILLESPIE: Why not finish the job then and, you know, shut John Boehner up, shut Eric Cantor up, shut Michele Bachmann up from being able to say, you know what, I'm paying for this microphone so it better reflect what I think and what I feel? You know, one of the things that the architects of public broadcasting in the late '60s could not foresee was the vast multiplication of sites of production and consumption of media but also the models.

GLADSTONE:Although, there certainly is a lot more verbiage. Just having a lot of people yelling at you 24 hours a day does not mean that we are swimming in a salubrious sea of useful information.

As usual, commercial radio is 24-hour yelling, and public radio is a 24-hour "salubrious sea of useful information."