Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, February 18, 2011

End the Subsidy for Commercial Broadcasters?

House Republicans are proposing to end the subsidy to public broadcasters purportedly as a deficit cutting measure. If they were serious about that and if it were not an ideologically motivated exercise, Republicans should jump at the chance to eliminate the much larger subsidy for commercial broadcasters. Both commercial and public broadcasters are permitted to use the frequencies for free. In the case of commercial broadcasters, this is a massive giveaway because they can and do charge advertisers for access to the frequencies. Commercial broadcasters are even permitted to sell the frequencies they have received for free. I recall many years ago a station in a major city being sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Why don't we end this free use of the public airwaves? Why don't we charge broadcasters before we give them a license to gobble up money? The theory used to be that these broadcasters were licensed to be public trustees. In practice, with deregulation, commercial broadcasters are trustees for commercial advertisers. There is a name for a system in which commercial broadcasters collectively are given this subsidy (a subsidy worth tens of billions of dollars): it's called corruption.


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Or corporate welfare...for which, after all, Republicans express boundless enthusiasm.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 18, 2011 8:36:07 AM

I think actually giving public radio money is a bit different than allowing everyone to use airwaves. The former is an actual subsidy. The latter is not. Does the government own the airwaves? If not, what's the justification for charging broadcasters to use it? So it's corruption for both parties to seemingly agree that both public and corporate broadcasters should be able to use airwaves without paying for the use?

Posted by: John | Feb 18, 2011 8:50:30 AM

Please, John. That sort of comment belies a complete ignorance about how FAA guidelines function, how the networks operate a de facto cartel subsidized by the government, how the profits from the commonly held airwaves all go into the pockets of the subsidized corporate entities in question, etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: WJ | Feb 18, 2011 9:13:01 AM

I agree that airwave licenses should not be freebies. So that shuold be next. But I also agree with John that they are different -- not that the free use of air is not a giveaway, but that the actually cash outlay is different enough in kind to justify cutting that layer before moving to the next. They are not identical.

Finally, I support cutting off "public" media funding AS an ideological point. Not as "revenge on the left," though that is the reality, but simply because the government should not be in the business of blessing and funding select news outlets. I don't care how many layers of protection there are; it's still just a watered-down Pravda problem. I don't care if it saves just a nickel. I don't want a "National" Public Radio in the goverment-blessed sense.

Even if no funding were involved at all, would we want Congres to declare USA Today "our favorite paper," any more than we want a resolution favoring "Methodism" as the "best religion" ?

I have never understood why liberals, who should best understood the dangers of favoring speech, are so enamored. The only explanation I can see is an equally ideological, but even more crass, one: "They pay my side, so it's all good."

If NPR were as rightward as it now is leftward, would the left still support it? Of course not. (And please, let's not deny the NPR tilt.)

So granting that GOP may be hypocrites and all, too, what's your best defense for selectively blessing government-approved media that's left-leaning?

Posted by: joe reader | Feb 18, 2011 11:48:23 AM

I'm not aware of any public broadcasting that is "left-leaning."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 18, 2011 12:22:00 PM

Juan Williams could not be reached for comment.

Posted by: Anonymous | Feb 18, 2011 1:11:42 PM

If the government were to charge, wouldn't the broadcasters just pass the cost back onto consumers by raising prices in order to cover that additional cost?

Posted by: Joseph Colvin | Feb 18, 2011 6:40:10 PM

If the government were to charge, wouldn't the broadcasters just pass the cost back onto consumers by raising prices in order to cover that additional cost?

Posted by: Joseph Colvin | Feb 18, 2011 6:40:11 PM

Apologies for the double post. (Yes, I know this makes it three.) There is no delete button I see, I guess I will have to be more careful with my clicking.

Posted by: Joseph Colvin | Feb 18, 2011 6:42:12 PM

Patrick, do you really think NPR news plays it right up the middle? I'm fairly liberal, but not hard left, and I have pretty many NPR-listening friends across the spectrum. Most of us agree it's got a slant, but my conservative friends think it's more severe, and my some of my more left friends think it's not there.

I think it's harmless and that the quality alone justifies the funding, but I can't deny that it's there.

Posted by: Another Anonny | Feb 19, 2011 6:31:18 PM

The notion that NPR is "left-leaning" is largely a reflection of how far the ideological spectrum has shifted to the (neo-liberal) right in this country. I'm a paleo-conservative (I suppose) but give me NPR any day over the brain-numbing imbecility of cable news programming and CBS affiliate "news" stations.

Posted by: WJ | Feb 20, 2011 8:33:43 AM