Why Cutting Public Broadcasting is About More Than Sesame Street

Republicans in the House want to save money by cutting funding for public broadcasting.

I've heard various arguments against this proposal, but many of them are unconvincing. For instance, a common argument I hear is that Republicans are using a minor fiscal emergency to target news outlets that are excessively liberal. That may be so, but that is not an argument. The motivations of Republicans are irrelevant. Rather, the question of whether to keep these programs must turn on their value to our democracy and not Republicans' motivations (sinister or not - I think not).

When faced with this observation, I often hear a reformulation of the argument which goes like this: NPR is awesome and so is public broadcasting (most people cite Sesame Street as something that would suffer - it's always about the children in politics even though they can't vote. Weird right?); therefore, we should keep it. This at least could be massaged into a valid argument, but its premise - that public broadcasting shows are really good - is very controversial and is likely to be exactly the claim that many Republicans will deny. How to go forward?

The argument I'll try for here appeals to the self-interest of Republicans. Of course, I personally think public broadcasting IS awesome and that we should keep it for that reason (that it's good for the country as a whole) but here I'll argue that even sincere Republicans have at least a prudential reason to want to keep it alive (of course, someone who thinks that NPR is just plain bad for the country could accept my argument and claim that the badness PBS inflicts on the country outweighs the damage that cutting its funding would do to the Republican cause).

I'll try to be quick. The argument is this. First, this interesting study (it's getting old now) ranks big media outlets on how liberal they are relative to each other and how relative they are to the average voter. On this measure, the PBS program The News Hour is one of the most centrist shows on the air and is more conservative than a vast majority of others. Also, even NPR is more conservative than the New York Times and is significantly more conservative than the average Democratic lawmaker.

I won't defend the methodology of this study at length, though I think it's defensible (read the study, it's interesting). Further, the argument that I need it for here may ameliorate some flaws there could be with it (since I rely here on relative comparisons of outlets, but see this criticism). And what is the argument I need it for? It's that quite simply, to cancel public broadcasting would be to LIBERALIZE the media outlets in the country. NPR listeners would have to go to the New York Times, which is more liberal. Also, many moderate people (like my dad) would lose The News Hour, which is only exceeded in conservativeness by Fox News and the Washington Times.

To wrap up then, cutting public broadcasting is a double-edged sword and Republicans should be very careful when playing with it. People, when faced with a decline in public news, are probably more likely to turn leftward than rightward to fill in the gap.

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