Camille Reyes

Big Bird Wants You

In Culture, Policy on February 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Alan Mutter is a veteran media executive, and runs a blog called Newsosaur.  He recently wrote a blog post arguing that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) should lose all federal funding because: a. there are more important things to fund, and b. NPR and PBS are rich enough already.


First, let’s challenge the notion that all the other media outlets do not receive federal subsidies.  This is, admittedly, outside of the scope of his argument, but since he (and the Republicans) only wants to defund CPB, I think it is relevant.  Those public airwaves are actually sold by our government on our behalf.  “Since 1993, the government has given to private interests as much as $480 billion in spectrum usage rights without public compensation” (Snider 1).  Mutter, as a veteran media executive, probably knows at least the rough value of spectrum, but he doesn’t bother telling you.  That would make his unfair argument a little fairer.  Remember that figure, $480 bbbb-billion to private interests.  (I stutter when I’m being robbed.) Funny, that money might have helped a few unemployed people.


Second, call me silly, but I think a roughly $420 million subsidy that helps deliver high quality, relatively independent (relative to those other commercial guys swimming in a sea of “fair” market values) information to the nation free of charge sounds better than silos of excess corn.  Mutter says,

“At a time when health, welfare and education programs are being slashed and burned at the federal, state and local levels, it is illogical, if not to say offensive, to argue that the large and well-heeled public broadcasting infrastructure needs government help more than hungry children, ailing seniors and unemployed people freezing in their homes.”

Public information is not a widget.  It should not be subjected to the same eyeball lusting demands of commercial media.  Is that unfair?  Yes.  Is it morally correct?  Yes.  Is CPB free from criticism?  No.  (In fact, Mutter gives a great synopsis of its detractors both right and left.) But the work they do should, in fact, be placed in the same bucket of stuff he says is more important to fund, like food and healthcare.  And I agree with him there, those things are very important.  So why not take that paltry $420 million for CPB from a new jet engine in the defense budget, or the elimination of a tax cut for the uber-wealthy?  Or maybe those spectrum subsidies?  That way those unemployed people freezing in their homes can get some cold comfort from their radios because, newsflash, they can’t afford cable television and they deserve quality journalism.

VIEWERS LIKE YOU (Not really, Alan)

Ah, but Freezing Joe will still get his CPB content because the CPB doesn’t need the federal money, plus, the CPB will actually gain something according to Mutter…

“But it would be worth it [to defund], because public broadcasters would gain the independence they – and viewers and listeners like us – deserve. Once and for all, the broadcasters could concentrate on broadcasting, instead of worrying about the next budgetary challenge from Capitol Hill or the White House.”

Here Mutter tries to have it both ways.  He praises the quality of the CPB repeatedly, but then says the “independence” from federal funds would free them up to focus on broadcasting.  Seems like they’ve been pretty focused.  It is laughable to suggest that worrying about the next public fund drive (now more frequent by his own admission) would divert any less attention than federal lobbying.


As for the “well-heeled” Gucci toting brass of CPB, Mutter’s criticism is misplaced.  Those top executives could make vastly more money working for the bastion of high quality journalism that is Fox News, yet they choose not to do so.  I wonder why?  Perhaps they think the CPB is more independent from gross ideology and shameless pandering for ratings, you know, the kinds of problems CPB faces less, thanks in part, to that federal funding.

I want to emphasize how disingenuous it is for Mutter to frame his argument in this way, in particular the characterization of the salaries of CPB executives.  He cites that the President of PBS made more than $632k in 2008.  This is offered as damning evidence of the excess of the CPB.  Take a guess how much Roger Ailes, the Chairman of Fox News, made in 2005?  Ready?  Try $7.1 million on for size (New York Magazine).  That’s $7.1 mmmm-million.  That is more than 10x more gold in the foot than the well-heeled exec at PBS.  Ah, but this is justifiable because Fox is a for-profit company?  Remember, Fox operates on loads of broadcast licenses throughout the U.S.  And those licenses are called what?  Federal subsidies.  But this is only fair.


Finally, Mutter pulls a surprise in the end.  It turns out he’s not against funding for ALL public media, just the CPB.  This is an argument actually worth exploring because the CPB should not enjoy a monopoly. However, rather than encouraging a discussion on the purpose of public media and those communities which are being more or less served by it, Mutter takes the easy road trying to cast CPB as the rich socialite who no longer needs Uncle Sam.  This is a less surprising move when you read about Mutter…

“Mutter now is a consultant specializing in corporate initiatives and new media ventures involving journalism and technology. He ordinarily does not write about clients or subjects that will affect their interests. In the rare event he does, this will be fully disclosed.”

That’s fff-funny; I missed the disclosure on this post.  I guess getting rid of federal funding for the CPB would not further “corporate initiatives and new media ventures involving journalism and technology.”


Snider, J.H., THE ART OF SPECTRUM LOBBYING: America’s $480 Billion Spectrum Giveaway, How it Happened, and How to Prevent it From Recurring. New America Foundation. 2007

New York Magazine.  Who Makes How Much: New York’s Salary Guide.  2005


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