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Pyle: Private sector falls short

Published October 5, 2012 5:56 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." — President Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 1953

Or, if Ike were around today, he might put it more like this:

"Every reality show that is made, every 'Kate Plus 8' that is aired, every Kardashian kept up with, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who are ignorant and not informed, those who are curious and not educated. This media in fluff is not spending money alone. It is spending the bandwidth of the Internet, the hours of our prime time, the marketplace of our democracy."

Which is why the blogosphere went tweeting mad when Mitt Romney said during Wednesday night's presidential debate that he would zero out federal funding of public broadcasting, his love for Big Bird notwithstanding.

Like so much else of Romney's thinking, his targeting of public broadcasting is based on the idea that government can't do anything better than, or even as well as, the private sector.

This delusion perhaps begins with his thinking that private, for-profit, high-overhead health care operations can do anything more efficiently than Medicare can and does. And it logically flows to the idea that the quality of broadcast programming available to Americans would be better if the feds just got out of the way.

There is a strong argument to be made that PBS, NPR and the like would have easier lives if they were free of taxpayer support, and all the political grandstanding that comes with it.

Some scheme should be worked out to spin off the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into a truly independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt, federally chartered outfit that would be devoted to raising individual, corporate and foundation money and do what it does now — pay for the only TV channels and radio stations that are consistently worth the electromagnetic spectrum that they suck up.

A lot of the production costs of some of the most popular shows, "Sesame Street" in particular, are already covered with private-sector grants and gifts, as well as the sale of licensed merchandise. But that doesn't cover what it costs local affiliates to air those programs.

Fans of the private sector are quick to use as examples networks such as Discovery, A&E and History. Those networks, and their predecessors, once produced thousands of hours of documentary and artistic programming.

But they soon morphed into festivals of conspiracy-theory/ancient-astronaut history and voyeuristic intrusions into the lives of criminals, hoarders, bounty hunters, hyper-fertile families, aging rock stars and something called Honey Boo Boo.

The idea that those channels provide a for-profit answer to public broadcasting is an argument that can only be raised by people who do not own a television machine.

Frank Rich, when he was writing for The New York Times, noted that when the television universe was an oligopoly of three networks, their owners did such things as maintain their own symphony orchestras and commission dramatic works by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. Now, in the wide open marketplace, they are in a race to the bottom.

Real documentaries and public affairs programs are pretty much confined to PBS and NPR. Which leads one to wonder if that is why today's oligarchs of big business want them done away with.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, enjoyed a past life where he offered commentary on both commercial and noncommercial broadcast outlets.




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