The Universal Notebook: The case against public broadcasting

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Will wonders never cease? While writing about life in the same southern Maine communities for decades, Portland Press Herald columnist M.D. Harmon and I have never to my knowledge agreed about anything. Harmon is a hard-core conservative. I am a soft-hearted liberal.

But I woke up this morning to find Harmon advocating for an end to taxpayer funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and, mirable dictu, I agree.

Conservatives, of course, have been trying to defund the CPB for years. Back in 1995, Newt Gingrich got his head handed to him when he tried to kill Big Bird. Gingrich has been irrelevant ever since. But we liberals generally support and defend taxpayer funding of CPB, the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio as a public investment in quality programming carried over public airways.

I, however, have supported liberating the arts and the media entirely from taxpayer support since 1989, when Republicans (they really aren’t much fun, folks) proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts because they were offended by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano photographs. My argument then and now is that taxpayer dollars necessarily come with too many strings, most of them attached to GOP puppet masters.

These days, the new tea party pirates in Congress are jerking CPB, PBS and NPR around in a war of words over, well, words.

In one brouhaha, NPR Vice President for News Ellen Weiss sacked commentator Juan Williams over his admission on “The O’Reilly Factor” that people in “Muslim garb” make him “nervous” in airports. Tea party xenophobes rushed to Williams’ rescue, creating a full-time position for him as a token liberal on Fox News. Then Ellen Weiss was canned for canning Williams.

This month, NPR President Vivien Schiller was forced to resign after conservative activists posing as potential Muslim donors recorded NPR chief fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation to his boss) saying the tea party is “not just Islamaphobic, but I mean xenophobic. I mean, basically they believe in sort of white, middle America, gun toting – I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

That comment may reveal a bias, but it also happens to be pretty much true. You just don’t want to be caught saying it to undercover conservatives with hidden cameras. When it comes to dirty tricks, you’ve got to hand it to the GOP, they give the CIA and the KGB a run for their money.

My feeling is that, rather than allowing politicians to perennially play dirty politics with the cultural life of America, we should establish a real endowment for the arts, a massive fund supported by donations from individuals, corporations, and philanthropies. Similarly, independent not-for-profit endowments should be established for newspapers, radio, television and whatever comes next.

Get the government out of the arts and broadcast businesses. Let those of us who believe in the common good support it voluntarily.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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