Public broadcasting helps democracy, rather than hamper it

By Kirby Rowan: Guest columnist

I listen to National Public Radio almost every afternoon, and find it an intelligent, informative alternative to the typical fare on afternoon radio. The same goes for public television. Both provide lots of public policy discussion/debate, funded in part by taxes.
Some of my friends who love Rush Limbaugh complain that PBS and NPR represent “liberal” media perspectives designed to undermine “traditional” family values and I’m sure Rush would agree.
I imagine him smugly asking: “Why do my taxes support programming available from private broadcasters?” It’s a fair question, despite the absurdity of the idea that PBS is out to undermine anything.
Extreme libertarianism aside, most of us understand that many needs are poorly served by the free market. The Interstate highway system could not have been built with only a company’s bottom line in mind, yet it is indisputably in the interest of our country at large. This is also true for our courts, schools, the Internet, and many other examples of things not immediately profitable to the free market at the beginning stages.
The same reasoning holds for a lot of the public conversation necessary for stable democracy. The free market has given us “Father Knows Best” and its inevitable successor, Rush Limbaugh, along with MTV, endless soaps and “reality” TV. We get what we want, right?
But that is not enough for an informed, working democracy.
We have a vast pool of information available to us via books, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet. Our vaunted information superhighway arrived decades ago. Obvious enough.
Not so obvious is that much of the serious, informed public policy discussions from the free market tend to have a predetermined slant or bias. Pat Robertson, Rush, Rolling Stone and National Review are good examples.
Most reasonable angles of public issues are covered within the free market, but at the inevitable cost of polarization and bias within any one presentation. Just listen to Rush.
By contrast, PBS and NPR manage to provide us with thoughtful, balanced programming, almost always without an ideological or policy slant.
The best example is still the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, but we can include the unfortunately discontinued Firing Line with Bill Buckley, which covered diverse opinions fairly and extensively. This evenhandedness is a necessary, if not profitable, addition to the free-market business of public discussion.
Gore Vidal once said that Americans are poorly educated because educated people would never have elected Ronald Reagan. Regardless of which president we might put within that argument, the presumption is that a well-educated public is essential for democracy.
In my view, PBS and NPR serve that function more fairly than any other information medium.

Portales resident Kirby Rowan, a frequent contributor to the Opinion page, makes a living delivering flowers and teaching guitar lessons. He can be contacted at 356-6345.