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Should Congress stop funding public broadcasting? ; System's flaws are far outweighed by the enlightenment it spreads

Vivian Schiller may be a blithering something or other, but whatever she says or does should not be reason enough to defund America's public broadcasting system.

Schiller famously fired the perfectly qualified, intelligent and well-informed Juan Williams from his long-held job at NPR allegedly for expressing fear about people of Muslim faith. He said that, in the aftermath of the horror of 9/1 1, he felt uneasy on a plane with passengers in Muslim garb.

Schiller maintained that Williams' comments about his innermost feelings were a firing offense because they somehow constituted racial profiling.

The Williams affair was political correctness run amok, said his more earthy defenders. He was fired chiefly because he had the temerity to appear regularly as a commentator on Fox News. As for Schiller, the Williams' camp blows her off as a language commissar terrorizing all those who believe in the First Amendment.

Whatever the merits of that opinion, I see no reason for serious disagreement about the merits of taxpayer-supported radio and television -- even in a country where a solid majority prefers media ownership dispersed in many private hands and not under monolithic government control.

However, both pro and con arguments about public broadcasting are diminished because they tend to cast the issue in categories of folks and elitists. I will not insult folks by association. Folks like beauty and joy as much as the elites. They just can't afford to put masterpieces on their walls and bookshelves.

President Lyndon Johnson was right when he created public broadcasting as part of his Great Society. He recognized that people do not live by bread alone -- that access to great music, great art and great literature ennoble even the most humdrum life.

TV's PBS and radio's NPR must stay on the air because they provide millions of Americans with enlightening programs not available on network television, cable or private radio.

I like concrete examples and here is one, right from the nation's capital. If you want to hear classical music in the greater Washington-Baltimore area, you must tune in to NPR stations WETA or WBJC because nobody else plays it.

If you like cop shows without close-ups of splattered brains, your PBS stations are your best channels. True, the shows usually are British -- superbly acted pieces like "Inspector Lewis" and the droll "New Tricks" -- but surely, that's no crime.

There also are such gems as "Live from Lincoln Center," "Nature" and "Antiques' Road Show," to name just a few. And only your local PBS station brings the July Fourth celebrations on the Mall from the trooping of the colors to the last fireworks rocket.

This is television at its best, enjoyed by millions, as measured year in and year out by the respected Roper poll.

I can do without the left-oriented NPR news. Schiller and her predecessors, back at least to the Vietnam War, have given countless passes to dictators like Fidel Castro but managed not to see his political victims rotting in primitive jails.

But NPR is more than just its strange attraction to corrupt and perverted socialism. Tune in its "Science Friday," "Fresh Air" and wonderful off-beat features on everything from culture to sports to agriculture.

Ads are the engine of private broadcasting but freedom from ads on public broadcasting is like a sunny day in the country and worth every taxpayer nickel.

And one more thing! Be sure to watch veteran journalist Jim Lehrer. His "NewsHour" is good, in-depth journalism -- expanding the minute or two that network and cable news give to major news stories into illuminating background features with commentary from experts who often broaden our understanding with their nuanced disagreement.

In short, the good of public broadcasting far outweighs the bad.

Surely, it's worth a minuscule fraction of the federal budget even in the direst of economic times.


Bogdan Kipling is a Canadian columnist in Washington.