"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Defund PBS

The usual conservative outcry over PBS is that it has a strong, unmistakable left-wing, liberal bias.  Now, how anyone can discern that bias from Car Talk, This American Life, or Masterpiece Theatre is beyond me; nor in the interviews of Terri Gross who elicits insights from artists, musicians, and filmmakers.  No, I don’t want to defund PBS because of a liberal bias, but because of an elitist bias.  Why should I get these great shows for free?  Why not pay for them on Sirius or XM? Perhaps more to the point, why should a rural dirt farmer in the Mississippi Delta have to pay for my pseudo-intellectual appetites?  I should pay and he shouldn’t have to.

I love PBS, especially NPR and listen to the BBC every night, and have my car radio tuned to my local NPR stations; and I contribute for the privilege of hearing uninterrupted, interesting (mostly) programs on a variety of topics. Unfortunately public radio and television cannot exist without additional support.  Even hefty corporate sponsorship is still not enough to cover all costs.  PBS would have a very hard time without federal funding, small as it is.  Most stations have tried the patience of their listeners to the limit with the seeming endless Pledge Weeks, and still the donations come only trickling in.

What no one has ever shown is how PBS somehow contributes to the common good enough to justify federal taxpayer support.  Certainly Car Talk does little more than entertain.  The Splendid Table helps foodies and locavores discover new recipes, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me provides more laughs over the weekend; but contributing to the common weal?  I don’t think so.

The issue here is elitism pure and simple.  Those passionate PBS supporters simply want to have their own private, commercial-free harbor – a refuge from the trash and inconsequential drivel on broadcast or cable/satellite radio and television.  A good example of this elitist mentality is Ken Burns.  He produces pompous, monotonous, endless serials that are little more than old sepia photographs and the ceremonious intoning of basso-profundo voice overs.  The worst offense is his series on baseball.  I am a big baseball fan, and I have a decent appreciate for its history.  In fact, that is what makes baseball so interesting.  Through statistics alone, a fan today can recreate not only a bygone era but the games of that era.  It really is a timeless sport.  However, I do not need to suffer through the Burns multi-part series to enhance my knowledge; let alone ask Bubba from Arkansas to pay for my privilege.

Wrong, say the ardent supporters of PBS.  This commercial-free haven of high-brow ‘educational’ programming does indeed serve the common good.  It not only raises the bar of intellectual discourse, it maintains it.  Without PBS, supporters argue, there would be no high bar to which to aspire.  Commercial television would be even worse.

This, of course is nonsense.  No one who watches American Idol or Jersey Housewives gives a rat’s ass for Ken Burns or Masterpiece Theatre.

There is one exception is All Things Considered which garners 12 million listeners every day and is the third most-listened to program on radio.  While it is no BBC (no station in the world can match the British World Service in professionalism, variety, intellectual rigor, and serious journalism), it does offer what no other news program currently does – longer segments, in-depth interviews, and moderately aggressive investigative journalism.

This, however, is no justification for continuing federal funding.  If it is so successful, then it can survive on its own.  It would simply have to take advertising, and given the character and quality of its audience, it would have to get equally high-toned corporations to advertise less frequently and still pay higher prices for the privilege; but it could be done.

Bob Garfield, writing in the Guardian (10.11.12) is an NPR reporter who offers a ringing endorsement, obviously, for the agency, and dismisses commercial alternatives:

The commercial alternative is a fetching idea that collapses absolutely at once, because the free market is a bit lacking, shall we say, mission-wise, with a tendency toward the lowest common denominator. TLC, the erstwhile Learning Channel, trades in such fare as Half-Ton Killer, a documentary about an obese murder suspect. The History Channel offers Pawn Stars. National Geographic: Family Guns and Women's Prison.

A disingenuous argument if I ever heard one.  Of course much of cable is dreck, sleaze, and prurience; but guess what? Programming is not developed in a vacuum, but the result of a lot of pricey research.  WE want to watch this garbage, have voted for it with our flipper and our eyes.  But does this current line-up of trailer trash offerings crowd out all PBS-type programs?  Of course not IF…and that is a big if….the demand for these programs is high enough to interest high-rolling advertisers.  If the audience share for Baseball is in the weeds, then it has to go. 

In closing, the knee-jerk reactions on both sides of the political fence do no one any favors, for they block out serious consideration of alternatives.  The Left simply does not want to let go of this top-down, ‘it’s good for them’, social engineering.  The Right does not want to admit that somehow a place should be found for programs that contribute disproportionately to higher-level discourse.

Garfield in his article is clearly pissed:

Once again, unofficially, let me offer this counter-assertion: anybody who promotes less knowledge over more, common wisdom over study, "tradition" over education, certainty over reflection, and superstition over science is a fool or worse. If public broadcasting is biased against anti-intellectualism, long live bias.

He is right in wanting a more educated, informed, and widely-read electorate.  We all do.  He is wrong in his own knee-jerk reaction that it must be PBS.

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