Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

My pledge dilemma

It may be useful to watch and listen to PBS and NPR, but should we support them?

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

I'd apologize for being a bit repetitious here-except, you see, that the blame really lies with the annoying repetition of others. Specifically, the folks at so-called public radio and public television have launched a new barrage of fund-raising appeals that seem to be as nonstop as eternity itself.

"This week is pledge week," Jim Lehrer and his staff announced each evening on the NewsHour last week. "This week is pledge week," he said again each night this week. "Pledge week" used to come twice a year. Now it comes two weeks in a row. And every time they make an appeal, they spike another news story to make room for the appeal. Our local NPR station has more than doubled the dollar goal of its spring fund-raiser.

Their desperation is understandable. Twice in the last five months, the public broadcasting folks have shot themselves in the foot. Even by their own standards, their behavior has painted a picture of an organization that leans habitually to the left-while asking its audience to believe it is always evenhanded. Now their clumsiness has produced a wound that, while probably not mortal, is gushing blood right there in the public eye.

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And it couldn't have come for these poor people at a worse time. A key portion of public broadcasting's support-only 10 percent, but an important 10 percent-comes from the federal government's empty coffers. So that support right now is being challenged by federal budget cutters, and the House has actually voted to defund public broadcasting. At 228-192, it wasn't as overwhelming a vote as it should have been, but it was still a bold move in the right direction.

All of which has renewed my personal dilemma. For years, I've been a consumer of the product offered by public broadcasting. I keep my car radio unalterably fixed on NPR, and when we watch TV news, it's almost certain to be the NewsHour. In both cases, I like interviews that offer more than 10-second sound bites on the part of respondents-which is typically all you get from commercial network news.

So now, what if Uncle Sam finally-and very properly and justly-decides it has no more business shaping the day's news via radio and TV than it does through subsidies of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or WORLD magazine? What if Congress finally hears us free market advocates and says to us all: "Now, it's everyone for himself. Everyone's on his own. Charge your customers. Charge your advertisers. Look for small gifts or look for big ones. But don't ask us any longer for annual handouts." An unlikely scenario? A year ago I would have thought so. Now, the accelerated fund drives throughout the world of public broadcasting seem to acknowledge that may well be the shape of things to come.

But how am I to respond personally? Do I, having already admitted my regular use of the product, have an ethical obligation now to pony up as part of my involvement in the free market? Or, having removed the distracting discussion about government subsidies from the debate (let's fervently hope so, at least!), may we focus now instead on the content of the programming-and based on that content decide whether and how we owe any financial support to that content's producers and sponsors?

One problem with such support is that public broadcasters' view of "faith" is too narrow and too exclusive of evangelicals (see "I didn't hear it on NPR," April 9). But it's not just when they're explicitly talking about "faith" that these public broadcasters so badly miss the boat. It's in the warp and woof of every single topic that NPR and PBS cover that they tend to be at best secularist, and very often pagan, in their outlook. It may be useful to hear what they have to say to understand the times, but they're teaching a false religion-and even if they're eventually free of government subsidy, they still won't deserve the charitable support of thoughtful Christian people.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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