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A Conservative Case for Public Broadcasting

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If we defund PBS, should we defund commercial media, too?

I have been struggling in recent weeks with the conservative attack on public broadcasting.

As a fiscal conservative but a social libertarian, I can see plenty of reason to put a stop to taxpayer-financed radio and television. The libertarian in me instinctively fears government-supported media: doesn't that just lead to political capture? The fiscal conservative in me wonders why we should waste taxpayer dollars on PBS, with today's superabundance of media outlets. And the capitalist in me loves the innovation and diversity generated by a wide-open, unsubsidized, competitive media marketplace.

But the realist in me -- the one that actually listens to both commercial and public media -- sees something different. Today, public broadcasting offers far more important and thoughtful programming, and is far less politically biased, than its commercial counterparts.

Why would public and commercial media be so different? It mostly comes down to the incentives that drive the two.

Commercial broadcasting depends on advertising. And advertisers depend on people who buy things. People buy things most readily when they are feeling impulsive -- when their basic drives for sex, love, power, and chocolate are tickled. Therefore, commercial broadcasters select programs that trigger peoples' impulses.

Take a look at what draws mindless eyeballs in commercial media these days. "Reality shows" lure us with the seven deadly sins -- every one of them celebrates lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, or all of the above. "News" has morphed into Glenn Beck on the right and Rachel Maddow on the left, which feed on the fear and anger of their viewers by bashing their respective political enemies as a bunch of idiots. True, perhaps, but not very introspective or enlightening.

Lust, greed, fear, anger, and rage -- these are the impulses that draw us to the commercial networks. Then, once we're captured, the networks toss us into a advertising lion's den, for a series of 30-second "words from our sponsors." Those spots, you may have noticed, don't sell us with words -- they bypass our cortex and take their case directly to those same basic animal drives, to sell us fast beer (sex), fast food (gluttony), fast money (greed), and fast cars (sex, gluttony, greed, plus envy).

Everyone thinks it's someone else who is influenced by advertising. And everyone is right. Few of us make any conscious choice to buy the stuff we see on TV -- the preference to consume builds up unconsciously.

That's mostly a good thing. Our core instincts have an ancient wisdom to them -- they have helped keep us from dying out as a species for a half-million years. But they all depend on the most powerful survival tool at our service: our cerebral cortex -- our thoughtful, conscious, and caring human selves. That's the part of us that helps us choose when we should, or should not, follow our instincts.

None of this is an attack on free enterprise, or capitalism, or the marketplace. None is meant to condemn products that appeal to our impulses, or oppose commercial media. None of it reflects a Puritanical desire to rid society of the core instincts that help drive the survival of the species.

But the overwhelming onslaught of advertising leaves us impoverished, when it comes to thoughtful, humane programming. We need genuine choice in media. Right now, public broadcasting offers one important choice.

Yes, PBS can be irritatingly self-righteous, and reflects a left-of-center bias in both its tone of voice and its story selection. And I'm not sure how programs like NPR's Car Talk or Antique Road Show improve my lot.

But PBS is fundamentally different from Fox or MSNBC, the conservative and liberal champions of commercial media. It is calm, thoughtful, measured, and introspective. It triggers not my passions and impulses, but my intellect. Even if I disagree -- as I often do -- I feel like I am more grounded and thoughtful when I listen to PBS.

I remember, forty years ago, William F. Buckley's Firing Line was the most thoughtful political program on the air: a staunchly conservative, pro-free market program, on a liberal, publicly-supported network. Oh, how we need more of that.

PBS is a small, almost trivial counterweight to the power of advertising-supported media. If anything, we need more of it, not less. More important, probably, is that we think about the effects of commercial media more systemically -- not to replace it, but to provide a genuine, self-supporting alternative, one that appeals not just to our base instincts, delicious as they are, but to our higher yearnings as well.