Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.
I should explain, at the outset, that I am agnostic on the subject of public broadcasting. It's obvious that NPR suffers from a left-wing bias — so obvious that it seems not to be noticed by NPR — but the fact is that I seldom listen to its programming except the classical music on one (WETA) of the two NPR stations in Washington. I have an allergy to the characteristic public broadcasting voice — the smirking whines of Ira Glass and Terri Gross, the smug tremolo of Kurt Andersen and Bill Moyers — and so routinely avoid them. But I do value WETA's status as the only classical music station in Washington, and would miss it if it were to disappear, especially since the market has demonstrated that no private broadcaster would fill the vacuum.
The fact is that the kind of radio and television I like — classic jazz and classical music, arcane documentaries on history, literature, and science — is nearly nonexistent on the air, except on PBS and NPR. Ostensible cable channels — History, Learning, Discovery, Arts & Entertainment etc. — are now either predominantly lowbrow or relentlessly lowbrow; and while I enjoy the occasional slumfest ("Teen Mom 2," "Hoarders"), there is no place on commercial radio and television for the kind of elitist fare that is occasionally found on PBS and NPR.
What to do? Since the early 1980s I have argued in print that the cure for congressional interference and pledge week is to wean public broadcasting from the federal spigot. Tax money subsidizes a very small percentage of the PBS and NPR budgets, and they could easily subsist on private funding and the sort of high-end advertising that anyone would prefer to pledge drives. The only valid argument against this is that individual stations are more heavily dependent on federal grants than the networks, and it is believed that some might not manage to survive if federal subsidies were cut off.
My response is that this is the same sort of rationale once used for welfare dependency, and with about the same validity. The fact that public broadcasting depends on federal funds does not mean that it cannot subsist without federal funds; and while it is theoretically possible that a certain number of stations in marginal markets would succumb, that might well be the cost (if it happens) of breaking welfare dependency.
For the benefits, in the long run, would clearly outweigh the risks. If NPR and PBS were to go private, that would not only end the perpetual tension (inevitable in a democracy) between taxpayer funds and public accountability, it would leave them exempt from political pressure and interference. Or put another way: Jim Lehrer and the Metropolitan Opera would go on, and there is nothing Congress could (or should) do about it.