RALEIGH – I have a soft spot for public broadcasting in general, and for UNC-TV in particular.
That’s why I think they should lose their government funding.
My history with public television begins in the 1970s, when it supplied the background track for various Hood-scapades. At first, my brothers and I would play cars or toys soldiers with Sesame Street and The Electric Company on in the living room. Later, we’d stare, oddly fascinated, at Julia Child making a soufflé, Louis Rukeyser interviewing a bond trader, or William F. Buckley leaning so far over in his chair – to his right, naturally – that we kept expecting him to topple to the floor while exchanging witty repartee with John Kenneth Galbraith.
It was on UNC-TV that we first discovered The Twilight Zone (beginning a lifelong fascination with sci fi), Monty Python’s Flying Circus (beginning a lifelong fascination with absurdity), and political talk shows (beginning a lifelong fascination with, well, absurdity).
As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s, I added public radio to my media diet, and began to appreciate other public TV offerings such as documentaries and British dramas. And as I began my journalism studies, UNC-TV programs first introduced me to some of the North Carolina reporters, editors, and personalities whom I’d later get to know and work with in my career.
After a couple of years working in Washington during and right after my college days, I moved back to North Carolina to help set up the John Locke Foundation. Shortly afterward, I got my first gig as a state political commentator on North Carolina This Week, a program broadcast statewide each weekend on UNC-TV.
Although I later moved to commercial television, I never lost my connection to or interest in public TV. In the years before cable, satellite, and online alternatives, it was the sole alternative to the big three TV networks and the grab-bag of syndication and Ginsu-knife commercials on the independent stations. Even now, public broadcasting continues to supply unique and interesting programs I enjoy.
But today is not 1971 – or even 1991. There are plenty of other information and entertainment options, made possible by technological innovation and entrepreneurial people who get paid by advertising, marketing tie-ins, service bundling, or private donors. Public broadcasting makes great use of all of these revenue sources, as well. Tax dollars now play a minor role.
It’s time they play no role at all.
The truth is that government funding was always problematic for public broadcasting. It always constituted a system of wealth redistribution – but not a “progressive” one. For every poor kid watching Wishbone or Reading Rainbow, there was at least one affluent viewer of Masterpiece Theater, Nova, or Wall Street Week. They should never have been subsidized by the general taxpayer, most of whom rarely if ever viewed these programs.
Government funding sustained some programs that might not have otherwise found an audience, but it also sustained bias, accommodated waste, and created conflicts of interest. I know firsthand of many cases of political interference with UNC-TV’s editorial decisions long before last year’s fiasco concerning coverage of the Alcoa dam dispute. The very fact that Legislative Week in Review is still considered a valuable service by politicians, lobbyists, reporters, and activists who follow North Carolina politics closely establishes why it is risky to continue to fund it through legislative appropriation.
It is certainly appropriate to expend tax dollars on public communications. State departments and agencies should be communicating with citizens as much as possible, through both traditional and social media. It ought to be easier to obtain public records, watch public meetings online, and engage public officials.
But the state of North Carolina should no longer be in the business of owning and operating TV or radio stations, using tax dollars to compete with commercial enterprises and unwisely untangling political power with editorial control. And the federal government should no longer be in the business of subsidizing these stations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
There are many, many people who value these programs and would buy or donate to them. I am among them – as long as you are asking me rather than trying to compel me.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.