In last week’s Journal, a conservative commentator makes the “free market” case for defunding NPR, not because it’s “liberal” (read: fires bigots for being bigots), but because government funding presents an insurmountable barrier to entry to other, would-be “quality,” for-profit broadcasting providers.
Safe to say this guy isn’t getting Carl Kassel’s voice on his home answering machine. But he’s also wrong, for two reasons.
First, his argument seems to be premised on a fallacy. If NPR exists only because of government money, such that pulling government funding would kill the network, this seems to be a concession that the “quality” broadcasting model isn’t sustainable on private funds alone. If that’s true, NPR is preventing precisely no profitable businesses from entering the market, because the necessary predicate to the argument, that NPR fails on private money alone, proves that the author’s business model is simply not sustainable. Maybe the paltry amount of money NPR receives from the government is enough to give the network a competitive edge it’s able to leverage to keep out competitors. But that’s not the argument that’s being made here, and it’s separately wrong.
Second, regardless of the amount of money NPR needs from the government, the network’s ability to avoid the free market, in part, is probably uniquely responsible for its ability to provide the kind of quality content our author purports to be interested in offering. Faced with the corrosive influence of the Fox model, and the need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, very few businessmen will be able to, or even try to, resist the temptation to pander. Quality, nonbiased reporting is quite possibly one of those rare commodities for which the public will not pay, but which it desperately needs: if we can’t legally regulate speech content whatsoever (even through network ownership caps or “fairness doctrines”), the unavoidable conclusion is that the vigorous American first amendment has turned “good journalism” into a public good. Private actors have no incentive to produce it; therefore, the government must.
Public broadcasting, then, is the best of several bad solutions to a very serious problem. How does a free nation remain free, when that very liberty depends on its citizens doing something that many would rather not do — remain informed about world events — and the government can neither force nor incentivize citizens towards that goal? The right’s feeble constitutionalism, possibly by design, can offer no answer to this difficult question.
Oh, and a closing note: to the author’s passing criticism, that the Public Broadcasting Act may fall outside of Congress’ enumerated powers, the general welfare clause (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) sweeps pretty broadly. And besides, no private actor would have standing to challenge the Act’s constitutionality. Even a prospective competitor’s interest — the closest one gets to a cognizable, redressable injury here — is by definition prospective and therefore insufficient.