- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2005

At a recent Capitol Hill rally against proposed cuts in government funding for public broadcasting, Rep. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, claimed to be accompanied by Clifford the Big Red Dog. But in photographs from the rally, it’s clear “Clifford” is shorter than Mr. Markey, who, according to his office, is slightly more than 6 feet tall. The real Clifford, by contrast, is huge, towering over people and backyard fences. He’s as big as a house.

Even if Mr. Markey had not presented an obvious impostor as Clifford, it would be hard to take him seriously. Like most supporters of taxpayer funding for TV and radio broadcasts, he simultaneously exaggerates and minimizes the significance of the subsidy, refuting his own argument.

If you’ve listened to NPR or watched PBS, which have carried scaremongering ads warning of the looming fiscal threat, you’ve no doubt heard about the legislation, recently defeated in the House of Representatives, that would have cut federal funding for public broadcasting about 45 percent next year.

“Some people are too little to call their congressmen,” says the announcer in an ad on Maryland’s WMPT as a montage of adorable babies is shown. “Why don’t you call for them?”

Mr. Markey continued the shameless child exploitation at his Capitol Hill rally, which included a group of preschoolers. “We are here today,” he announced, “to send a message to Republican leaders: Don’t starve Big Bird.”

As the father of a 2-year-old, I see “Sesame Street” almost every day, and I’ve noticed something Mr. Markey hasn’t: Big Bird could stand to lose a few pounds.

If Cookie Monster can recognize his favorite snack is a “sometime food,” surely his feathered friend could set a better example for America’s tubby tykes.

In truth, however, there’s little danger Big Bird will have to cut back on those birdseed shakes. “Sesame Street” is one of the most popular children’s programs in history — so popular that licensing fees from “Sesame Street” dolls, toys, clothing and other merchandise are the main source of income for the organization that produces the show. As Rep. Ralph Regula, Ohio Republican, noted when Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat, started waving around Bert and Ernie puppets at an appropriations hearing, “Your puppets get one-half of 1 percent of the money, so you can relax, Nita.”

More generally, children’s programming that has an audience does not need taxpayer subsidies. Noggin, which is more “commercial-free” than PBS stations, carries 12 hours of kids’ shows (including two different versions of “Sesame Street”) every day, and they are at least as good as the PBS offerings in entertainment and educational value. Parent-acceptable children’s programming can also be seen on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and ABC Family.

Nonsubsidized competitors likewise offer programs for adults comparable to those carried by PBS and NPR, including news, documentaries, music, cooking shows and BBC series.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for the public stations; perhaps they do some of these things better. And there’s always the argument that “not everyone subscribes to cable,” as Mr. Markey noted (although more than 80 percent of U.S. households have cable or satellite TV, and only some of those that don’t are going without it for financial reasons).

But to the extent that the public stations’ programming is valued, they should be able to attract enough private support to make up for the 15 percent of their budgets that comes from the government.

Supporters of the subsidy make much of how little it amounts to — “less than $2 per year per person,” as Mr. Markey put it, for a program Americans tell pollsters they consider one of the best uses of their tax dollars. But this argument cuts both ways: If the vast majority of us believe the money is well spent, shouldn’t the stations be able to find plenty of donors willing to kick in substantially more than their $1.30 annual share as taxpayers? The very popularity that has repeatedly saved public broadcasting from federal funding cuts suggests it could survive despite them.

Similarly, the argument was backward that funding cuts had to be defeated to prevent political interference with programming. It’s government funding that makes such interference inevitable. The best way to keep public broadcasting editorially independent is to make it financially independent.

Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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