Bill Haenel

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Posted by Bill Haenel on 16-Feb-11

I read a Facebook comment about cutting federal funding for public broadcasting today that made the point that "if it was so good, it could survive on its own."

This of course misses the point of public broadcasting.

I hear these sorts of comments a lot lately, and they're often followed with proclamations about not wanting taxes to pay for biased opinions and leftist agendas. Or maybe how the media landscape eliminates the need for one more media channel, especially one that's paid for by the government.

All of these arguments, true or not, again miss the point.

Do you REALLY want all of your information to come from independently-controlled media? Even if it's not perfect the way it is, and even if you think it needs a serious overhaul, public broadcasting is, in fact, PUBLIC. It's the only voice we have that is mandated to be neutral and open, freely available to the public. And while lots of people believe it's slanted and left-leaning, it's still the only media we have that has any hope of being made neutral. Don't we need an open, public forum that belongs to us, in order to ensure we have access to participation in our government?

The government has no right to dictate how the media does its business, of course. Would we like to pass laws that dictate the way Fox News should report the news? Would we like to force CNN  to start airing educational programming for a specific number of hours per week? Would we like to start auditing MSNBC productions to be sure they aren't permitting commercial interference to influence their reporters and producers? If you think people are arguing about whether or not to cut public broadcasting from the federal budget, wait until we start arguing about whether or not the government should be able to control the private sector media. Without public broadcasting within its grasp, won't the government have every reason, and even an outright duty, to start looking at how to regulate private broadcasting?

So there's the point. In a democracy, we need to have a free press. But we also need to have some reassurance that we have access to information about current events that is not subject to all the weaknesses of capitalism and commercial interests. Don't get me wrong, I love capitalism. But it doesn't belong in the middle of the newsroom.

We may need to do some fix-it work to get public broadcasting to work the way the people want it to work. I know a lot of folks whose opinions I really respect, who think that public broadcasting (NPR in particular) isn't as "public" as it should be, mostly in the sense that it's "biased". So great. You want it to be different. Me too, let's change it. We can do that because it belongs to us. But if we get rid of it completely we'll have nothing of our own. You go right ahead and call up the production team at Fox and tell them you want them to stop being so darned righty. Good luck with that. As a taxpayer, you have no power or control over Fox, or MSNBC, or CNN, or Huffington Post, or NY Times, or Wall Street Journal, or anyone else. Public broadcasting is your only oasis.

Since they don't teach about it in school, and because it's been so long since the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 was established, most people don't really remember or know why it exists. It's worth knowing, because it's a pretty important part of having our democracy.

Read the text of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 at http://www.cpb.org/aboutpb/act/text.html.

And while you're at it, you can get the "executive summary" version of the act by reading Lyndon Johnson's remarks about it, at http://www.cpb.org/aboutpb/act/remarks.html.

By all means, please feel free to use the comment form below to tell me if you think I am wrong.

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