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K. Lloyd Billingsley - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

Public Broadcasting?
San Diego heiress bequeaths taxpayer-funded NPR a windfall…
[K. Lloyd Billingsley] 11/20/03

Joan Kroc, the heir to the McDonalds fortune who died last month in San Diego, left $200 million to National Public Radio. The gift, reportedly the largest of its kind in American history, is nearly twice NPR's annual budget of $103 million. It provides the opportunity to ponder the concept of public broadcasting, a classic misnomer.

The notion that NPR somehow evenly represents the views of the American public will rightly be greeted with derision by any fair-minded person who has ever listened to "All Things Considered" or "Morning Edition." In story selection, reporting, and commentary, NPR stands in left field, near the foul line.

An NPR announcer cued in a recent "Talk of the Nation" show on the subject of evil by raising the specter of "Hitler, Stalin, and Hiroshima." In the world of NPR, the United States is the moral equivalent of genocidal dictatorships. But NPR is different in a more important way.

The federal government takes money from taxpayers and gives it to NPR. Fox, CBS, CNN, NBC, ABC, and other networks do not get government money. NPR apologists say the government money, about $1 million last year, amounts to less than one percent of its annual budget. But the principle is more important than the amount. The proper role of government does not include dishing out subsidies for radio and television outlets, especially when they can get by without it.

NPR and PBS are into broadcasting and merchandising, the peddling of videos, cassettes, and the like. The proceeds from these commercials, however, are not plowed directly back into operating expenses but go to the for-profit subsidiaries of the producer.

There is huge profit in many items, especially those based on the children's shows with singing dinosaurs. But behind the "public" image, the producers don't like to talk about it. Journalists seeking to know the profits of Bill Moyers or Children's Television Workshop, if they can get a hearing at all, will be told that such information is "proprietary." In other words, the same public that funds the network that made the items profitable has no right to know.

There is nothing wrong with profit, but in this case the non-profit network takes taxpayer money and advertises itself as "public," like a park anybody can access. The proceeds, especially from the children's toys, could easily replace the government subsidies. But NPR and PBS keep coming back for more, and this amounts to the middle-class and poor subsidizing the wealthy.

NPR bosses said they weren't sure what to do with the $200 million gift, but that should be easy. NRP should stop taking government money. Since that is unlikely, the government, at all levels, should stop giving it to them. The case is especially strong since the gift of $200 million from the $1.7 billion estate of Joan Kroc, who also gave more than $90 million to the Salvation Army, $50 million to the University of San Diego, and $50 million to Notre Dame University.

NPR and PBS should compete in the media marketplace. If members of the public choose to give money to either network, they will have ample opportunity during pledge week.

copyright 2003 Pacific Research Institute



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