A more balanced Pravda?

Paul Jacob

5/22/2005 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

When I think about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I can't help but think of Pravda, the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party back in the days of the Soviet Union.

Now, don't get me wrong. It really isn't any of the similarities in their ideological bent that connects them in my mind. Rather, it is the concept underlying both, the idea that the government ought to be in the news business, the documentary business, or even the entertainment business.

When government is involved in producing or subsidizing news coverage or political and historical documentaries ? even entertainment ? it amounts to state-supported propaganda. And that conjures up Pravda.

But unlike Pravda, the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio are still around. (Well, Pravda is too, in a sense. Boris Yeltsin shut it down as a state-run paper in 1992, but it was reborn, both in print and online ? neither state-owned.) Granted, PBS and NPR are also less state subsidized than they once were, but taxpayers' money is still provided through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

The CPB is supposedly a private corporation, chartered by Congress to help fund PBS and NPR, but it receives tax dollars. That seems to take the "private" out of being private.

Conservatives have long complained about a left-wing bias at PBS and NPR, something CPB's new chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, is trying to do something about. Mr. Tomlinson is a not socialist (at least not on purpose); he's not even a liberal. He is a conservative.

Tomlinson headed the Voice of America during the Reagan Administration. He was appointed to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2000 by President Clinton, and then named chairman of the board by President Bush in 2003. (The fact that the board members are appointed and promoted by the president is a bit unusual for private corporations, too.)

But Tomlinson has created a bit of a firestorm because he wants more balance from PBS and NPR. That these two networks show a left-wing bias is gospel truth on the right, but remains hotly disputed by those at PBS and NPR. And a poll conducted by CPB in 2003 found that 36 percent of Americans think PBS news coverage of President Bush was "fair and balanced," while 18 percent thought it was not and 46 percent had no opinion. Of course, only 8 percent of Americans watch PBS.

That some folks or most folks or nearly everyone fails to see a bias in public TV and radio matters not at all to me. Part of my day job is dealing with the media and that requires some consideration of where media outlets and personalities are coming from. I've been interviewed countless times by people at PBS or NPR. There is no slant more socialistic, and more consistently so.

This has never surprised me. Publicly funded media is socialistic, so it doesn't seem odd at all that those working for such entities might have a stronger belief in socialism than even the very liberal folks at privately owned big media outlets.

There is bias in news reporting and there always will be. That's hardly the problem. The problem is forcing people to pay for the bias and propaganda with which they disagree. As Jefferson once wrote, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical."

This sort of tyranny has become a fixation on the left. Leftist artists cannot seem to enjoy their craft without the controversy that comes from forcing people who are offended by it to pay the bill. Leftists also want public financing of political campaigns, so that Americans are forced to pay to promote political views they oppose. Of course, this could just be a pragmatic decision based on the realization that they cannot raise funds voluntarily.

And too, the liberals who predominate at PBS and NPR are likely much happier pretending that they work in a commercial-free sector where they can escape having to do programming based on what customers with their filthy money might desire. This is a charade, of course, since ads from big corporations make up a huge chunk of PBS's support. But still, they do pretend.

And so when someone suggests public TV and radio must pay attention to those paying the bills ? taxpayers in this case ? they resist.

"This is not a controversy I brought to public broadcasting" Chairman Tomlinson recently told The Washington Post. "All I'm trying to do is advocate that both sides be fairly represented. There is a perception among a lot of politically sophisticated people that that balance is not always there."

Mr. Tomlinson has a strong point, of course. Just the wrong point.

First, he suggests that every political or cultural issue has just two sides. The world is more complex than that. Which is why the free-market has produced an enormous array of media choices. All funded by individuals voluntarily investing to reach an audience that doesn't have to pay for it unless people freely choose to do so.

Second, Tomlinson embraces the concept that the government ought to be in the business of media. Whether government funding creates a left-wing or a right-wing bias, it is not just money wasted, it is money that undercuts the free marketplace of ideas.

Mr. Tomlinson says that "a lot of my friends are against taxpayer support." Now, I don't know Mr. Tomlinson from the Man in the Moon, but I certainly like his friends. (And they'd no doubt like my Common Sense e-letter.)

Let's cut the cord between government and media. Let's end taxpayer subsidies for TV and radio ? and columnists, for that matter ? forever. We don't need a more balanced Pravda. We need to make Pravda, PBS, and NPR private.