NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Problem with Public Broadcasting

May 25, 2012

Assailed from all sides with allegations of bias, charges of political influence and threats to defund their operations, public broadcasters have responded with everything from outright denial to personnel changes.  Yet government-funded media companies are inherently problematic and impossible to reconcile with either the First Amendment or a government of constitutionally limited powers, says Trevor Burrus, a legal associate at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies.

The inherent problems with public broadcasting stem first from the lack of need for such an entity.

  • In principle, government funding should be used to provide necessary goods that cannot or will not be provided by the market.
  • Public broadcasting's popular programming creates more of a paradox than a justification -- the more popular programming becomes, the less justified is its support by the taxpayers.
  • Furthermore, while there was originally a dearth of programming like the product currently supplied by PBS and NPR, the new proliferation of media outlets seems ready and willing to respond to consumer demand.

Furthermore, public broadcasting is an imprudent notion and a poor use of government resources.

  • As originally conceived, public broadcasting was meant to be free from direct government control.
  • Understandably, that was a cornerstone recommendation of the Carnegie Commission, which produced the report that led to the modern public broadcasting system.
  • But public broadcasting in America has never been divorced from government control.
  • For example, although the Carnegie Commission report recommended a 12-person board, with six appointed by the president and six appointed by those appointees, President Johnson submitted a bill that had the president appointing every member of a 15-person board.
  • Reliance upon government financial support adds further opportunity for political pressure to be exerted upon the component entities of public broadcasting.

Finally and most importantly, public broadcasting is constitutionally problematic.

  • Nowhere in the Constitution is any power given to Congress to fund the production of media.
  • Fundamentally, the existence of state-funded media companies cannot be squared with the First Amendment.
  • Public broadcasting is forced into the inscrutable position of needing to appear fair and balanced while not being forced to abide by the government's assessment of what that is.

Source: Trevor Burrus, "If You Love Something, Set It Free," Cato Institute, May 21, 2012.

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