Last night I was pleased to attend a reception unveiling the remodeled portions of Richland Library, which also served in a way as a celebration of the fact that the library was recently named one of the nation’s best.
The library is indeed something that we have to be proud of in this community, even though some of us (ahem!) aren’t allowed to check books out because we sleep across the river. Seriously, though, it’s awesome. (At this point I must note that ADCO did the library’s rebrand awhile back, and my daughter-in-law works there.)
Anyway, this came back to mind this morning when I was reading George Will’s Sunday column harrumphing about funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (“Public broadcasting’s immortality defies reason.”)
He trotted out all the usual libertarian, market-oriented objections, such as:
- It might have been all well and good in the 1960s, when it was started as part of LBJ’s Great Society (about which, as you’d expect, Will has snotty things to say). Back then, it increased most people’s TV choices by 33 percent. But if it were gone today, it would reduce folk’s choices from, say, 500 channels to 499.
- The elite snobs who like it are generally affluent enough to pay for their chosen recreation and edification themselves, without forcing Joe Sixpack to cough up taxes for it.
- If Big Bird et al. have value (and Will is willing to stipulate that they do, in a market sense, which to him is what counts), advertisers and broadcasters would line up to eagerly purchase them and take over would CPB cease to be.
Here’s how I answer those:
- That’s like saying we don’t need libraries because there are (or used to be) bookstores, and Amazon. Well, yes, those things are fine enough for those who can afford them, but they have a tendency toward the lowest common denominator — reality TV and other garbage. Occasionally, commercial TV has started to do what CPB does — remember how A&E and Bravo started out, before sliding into what Will would term inanition — but the market has yet to produce anything that regularly airs such material as “King Charles III” or “The Civil War” (just to name a couple of personal faves; you may have others.)
- Sorry, but even if everyone doesn’t want it, public amenities — from parks to libraries to public schools — are there to better our communities in ways that the market will not. And Joe Sixpack has the same ability to vote for what he wants our tax money to be spent on that I do. Not everyone will agree with every expenditure, but these are the little trade-offs involved in living in communities rather than as hermits. The government (in this country) is not some separate thing out there doing things to us. It is us, and every one of us has the right and the obligation to express what we want it to do — which I am doing at this moment. (Oh, and not all elite snobs are made of money, just as an aside in response to an assertion that is neither here nor there.)
- Yes, they may, and then we’d have to watch commercials every 10 seconds. And eventually, all that we would get would be the content that maximized profits, and we’d lose other things that might make a little money but not enough, things that very well be the best of the lot. The marketplace gives us all sorts of wonderful things, from iPads to, um, iPhones (if I had more time, I’d surely think of something else), but I think an important function of the public sphere is to give us good things that the market will not. And if you wonder what sorts of things those might be, go watch some PBS or listen to NPR.
Finally, Will makes a point that in the abstract is devastating and unassailable, especially if you’re a journalist:
America, which is entertaining itself to inanition, has never experienced a scarcity of entertainment. Or a need for government-subsidized journalism that reports on the government. Before newspaper editorial writers inveigh against Mulvaney and in support of government subsidies for television and radio, they should answer this question: Should there be a CPN — a Corporation for Public Newspapers?
Well, no, of course not. But then, we’ve long made a distinction between the press and the use of the public airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine and so forth.
Still, it’s a powerful argument: Government-run news, globally, is the mark of the totalitarian, repressive state.
But then we have the actual fact, right in front of us, of PBS and NPR news programming. And to any objective observer (especially a professional one), they are of such such vastly higher quality than commercial broadcast news that it’s stunning. They are every bit as fair and impartial if not more so, and the depth and quality puts everything (except the better print outlets) in the shade.
It shouldn’t be so. But in reality, it is.
I’m reminded of something The New Republic published a few years back: “Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not.” (Of course, some of my friends will object that the magazine said so in support of the Iraq invasion, so there’s that — but it was still a very true observation, a warning against overgeneralization.)
Government-backed media is a scary thing. Except PBS news is so very good. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that — as an informed observer of news — I’d be sorry to lose that source. (Also, consider — this is news that gets a subsidy from government. As disturbing as that sounds, it’s a far cry from government-run news, which is something I do take an absolute, Actonesque stand against.)
And ultimately, that’s what I have to say about public broadcasting overall. At our house, except for maybe the weekly cold open on SNL, PBS is the only broadcast TV we watch at my house. We use our TV for that, and Netflix and Amazon. That’s it. And the reason why is that the rest of the broadcast universe offers nothing else as good.
And whatever the abstract arguments presented pro and con, I don’t want to lose that. So, to the extent I get a vote, I say let’s keep it.