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Is There an Ethical Case Against Funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

2010/10/25

The estimable Seth Lipsky responded twice to the NPR-Williams contretemps. Firstly, in the Wall Street Journal – The Real Case for Defunding NPR, Mr. Lipsky lays out a case against NPR/CPB on the basis that State-supplied funds for broadcasting investment distort the information market.

[…] but my own view of the contretemps is slightly different. I have no quarrel with NPR being a left-of-center news source or with the authority of NPR’s president, Vivian Schiller, to fire Mr. Williams. The First Amendment right to decide what is aired on NPR—that is, the right that Congress is prohibited by the First Amendment from abridging—belongs not to the talent that wants to go on the air but to the owner of the radio network that airs them. The government and its subsidy receivers, as far as I’m concerned, can be as left-wing as the voters will put up with. My quarrel with government subsidies to NPR—via grants from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting—is that they cast a chill over the markets in which private entrepreneurs seek to raise capital for what might be called highbrow journalism. It is hard to quantify this. But it is a conclusion that I have reached after more than two decades spent seeking to raise capital for privately-owned publications competing in this arena.

In his second missive, an editorial at The New York Sun – Our Prediction on NPR, Mr. Lipsky notes complications concerning free-speech rights and past Court decisions:

This time might be different, given the baldness of the bias that was evident in the firing of Mr. Williams and also given the fiscal crisis that will be facing the next Congress. The man who is likely to be the next speaker, John Boehner, has stated publicly that he wants to take a look at funding for the public broadcasters. So it is not hard to imagine that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its grantees could have a problem. That is when we predict the recipients of taxpayer funding will try to make a constitutional case that they can not be cut off for content.

[…] we predict the recipients of taxpayer funding will try to make a constitutional case that they can not be cut off for content.” There is something in the principle of the first case – government distortion of free markets – that seems to me to apply directly to the second case – free-speech rights.  Amateur I am, so please bear with me while I construct the question.

If memory serves, the Constitution reserves God-given rights to the People, and only grants certain powers to the Federal Government. The Federal Government does not have Rights as such; only Powers.

Moreover, Government is the use of force; in contradistinction, free markets are voluntary. By definition, citizens have the option to withhold or to apply their purchasing and investment dollars in a free market.

Yet, this freedom has been taken from citizens in a distorted market where the government is a direct player. Governmental distortion effects citizens’ risk assessments and so choices.  This freedom is already distorted somewhat by yet another governmental power: Regulation.

We are speaking here of two distinct markets; the principles hold for both: The broadcast investment market depends upon money; the marketplace of ideas depends upon free speech.

Does a governmental body or governmentally-funded body, having the power to use forcibly taken funds truly have ‘Rights’ of free speech under the First Amendment? Does this same entity, having the power to use forcibly taken funds truly have a ‘Right’ to distort the investment market?  I believe not.

From an ethical view, it would seem appropriate that those who have taken the rights of others can not then claim equal standing in regards to those rights. There is trust and debt involved: Surely it is corrupt to first take citizens’ wealth and rights and then to apply them in competition with or directly against the citizen.  The issue is not the content of speech but rather the act of speech where no right exists.  The issue is not the intent of investment and purchase, but the mere fact of distorting the market.

The Government and those it funds in speech are not equal players with equal ‘rights’.  Imagine the problem from a football stadium bleacher: The Pittsburgh Steelers are digging-in on the line of scrimmage. They know this is going to be tough: The opposition has unlimited power and they can change the rules of the game in mid-stride. Referee’s quarterback calls the play… snaps the ball…  It is far, far worse than an unfair game:

The Referees own the stadium and slam an iron fisc upon captive spectators whether they care to observe or not.

The Medium is the Message.  McLuhan’s maxim must be considered in the broader context:  When the medium of information is the government, government is the message.  Is there a more accurate definition of tyranny?

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