According to a Poll Position survey conducted in late October, 45 percent of Americans said "no" when asked whether the U.S. government should stop helping to fund NPR; 39 percent said "yes." Only those respondents identifying themselves as Republicans favored, by a 54 percent to 28 percent margin, ending taxpayer support for NPR.
Given that the federal budget is more than $1 trillion in the red and that deficits extend into the future as far as the eye can see, federal subsidies to public broadcasting understandably are on the table.
The just-released report of President Obama's deficit-reduction commission recommends diverse measures to put Washington's fiscal house in order, including a $100 billion reduction in defense spending, a substantial increase in the federal excise tax on gasoline, ending of the tax deductibility of home mortgage interest payments and eliminating all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Federal funding of public radio and television seems to be comparatively small potatoes in the larger budget picture.
This year, for example, congressional appropriations for CPB, the primary channel through which tax dollars are funneled to PBS television and NPR, amounted to $422 million.
At a time when economic stimulus programs, financed primarily by borrowing and the Federal Reserve's recently announced second round of "quantitative easing," total in the trillions, who could object to spending a mere few hundred million dollars to support the production and distribution of public programming? Well, I do.
The best estimates suggest that, historically, about 15 percent to 20 percent of public broadcasting's operating expenses are financed by federal taxpayers. Over the last four years, private donations, both in cash and in kind, accounted for 33 percent to 39 percent of the public media's annual revenue. State and local governments, foundations, colleges and universities, both public and private, contributed another 29 percent of the total.
Supporters of continued taxpayer support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its affiliated local stations argue that $400 million is a small price to pay for financing a voice "independent" of the commercial media. Juan Williams, recently fired in response to his expression of unease in boarding aircraft with obviously Muslim passengers, would beg to differ, as many other Americans would.
Because of its tax-exempt status, the corporation attracts many "angels," such as Joan Kroc of the McDonald's fortune, and the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, each of which reportedly contributed more than $5 million to NPR's annual fund between 1993 and 2005. Other private contributors, such as Carolyn and Matthew Buscksbaum, Anne and John Hermann, and the Ford, Kresge and Doris Duke foundations, reportedly wrote checks of between $1 million and $5 million per year over the same period.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in 1967 at a time when three national television networks dominated the airwaves. Today, the broadcast media offer a diverse mix of content over the air, and via cable and satellite. It may have once been true that a publicly financed source of "quality programming" and diverse opinion was necessary to ensure access to highbrow entertainment, and news and opinions not available elsewhere.
Nowadays, however, the History and Discovery channels, Public Radio International, American Public Media and SIRIUS satellite radio, among others, compete effectively with NPR and PBS -- and millions of Americans willingly pay for commercially distributed content.
If NPR and public television cannot survive in such an environment without taxpayer subsidies, they should be allowed to go the way of the dodo bird.
In today's information-heavy media marketplace, no one should have special privileges. The public media do not broadcast commercials, but they do have sponsors who can fill the funding gap.
William F. Shughart II is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.