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The PBS Scandal

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Tags Media and CulturePolitical Theory

07/21/1999Tibor R. Machan

When the government in a free society interacts with the citizenry, no bias is supposed to occur. That is the gist of the rule of law. The law is to apply to everyone in the same way.

In the same spirit, Public Broadcasting, which is partly financed by the government, is often urged to be fair-minded, unbiased in the way it deals with various issues. You will notice that the News Hour with Jim Lehrer always features pro and con folk discussing the topic of the day. If some program on Israel or abortion fails to be fair, PBS usually assures viewers who complain that some other program leans the other way. And this is natural: given its base of tax funding, it would be wrong to finance some faction's viewpoint more vigorously than another's.

Of course the idea of complete fairness is impossible to achieve. There simply isn't enough time and money to do all viewpoints complete justice, even if there were a serious intention to do so. In fact only prominent or notorious enough factions from the citizenry have their positions even considered, let alone presented. In this day of multiculturalism, for example, I have never seen a prominent representation of the Hungarian-American viewpoint, or that of Mongolian Americans. These groups, as thousands of others, simply lack the clout or favor in Washington.

A couple of years ago I noted that there had occurred a most flagrant breach of fairness that cannot be excused based on limited resources or lack of constituency. PBS has been running ads, what can only be considered political promos, in support of its own alleged indispensability. Sadly, no one seem to take notice of this breach of neutrality.

What did these promos say? They asked such questions as "Who would do this program if PBS were not around to do so?" "What would we do about such and such programming without PBS?" PBS was involved in self-promotion on its partly publicly funded airways. These were plain old political campaign slogans, aiming to promote a legislative agenda.

Now what is the trouble here? We have a corporation partly funded by the government that is using its position as a public agent to promote the agenda of only a faction of the public, namely the faction that favors PBS.

Of course, those who love PBS want it to be continued. But PBS is not a private sector venture the supporters of which are using their own wealth to undertake various projects. No. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds PBS and the various stations that broadcast its programs. A large percentage--around 15%--of the funding comes from taxes paid by all of us, not only by supporters of PBS. So this outfit has no business using your and my money to promote something to which you and I are opposed.

Now we learn that not only did PBS run these ads in flagrant violation of its public and thus necessarily non-partisan nature. Many of its stations–15% of them--committed even more blatant acts of partisanship. They shared their list of donors with political parties, mainly the Democratic National Committee but also with some Republican efforts, such as the Dole Presidential campaign.

The rational is not difficult to understand. PBS and its radio sister, NPR, are clearly edited to bolster liberal and statist causes. This may not be true of the News Hour with Jim Lehrer but it is with many of their programming decisions, choices of topics, the sorts of questions they pose to people they interview, and so on.

What is wrong with all this? The reason that governments may not run churches or newspapers is that it is not the business of a government to advocate various special programs. Government is supposed to make sure that we can all strive to implement our ideas, to the extent our good fortune and hard work make possible. It has no business getting into the promotional fray itself.

But when government gets involved anyway, as it must administering schools, colleges, universities, and broadcast networks, its role as a fair representative of the people must be destroyed. That is one of several reasons PBS should be abolished--not just "phased out" but scrapped immediately. It is antithetical to the non-partisan job with which governments are entrusted.

Given that broadcasting of any sort cannot escape being partisan, no matter how one may try to dodge that fact, government isn't supposed to be involved in it. Its only business should be what the US Declaration of Independence stated: To secure our basic rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


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