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Public Finance and Public Broadcasting

Nicholas Johnson, Guest

Gayane Torosyan, Host

"Talk of Iowa," Part 2 of 2
[WSUI-AM, Iowa City; WOI-AM, Ames]

June 22, 2005

Note: Nicholas Johnson appeared on "Talk of Iowa" during the 10:00 to 11:00 o'clock hour on June 22, 2005. Both segments of the program dealt with the role of public finance for non-profit and for-profit projects. Part 1 of 2, "Public Finance and the Coralville Rain Forest," focused on the $50 million in federal money for a proposed 4-1/2-acre covered rain forest. This segment, Part 2 of 2, dealt with the then-current controversy over cuts in funding for public broadcasting.

Gayane Torosyan [GT]:  Welcome back to Talk of Iowa.  Iím Gayane Torosyan.

My guest on todayís program is Nicholas Johnson.  He teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and he served on the Federal Communications Commission.  We are talking about using public money in the private sector or in a mixed sector.  Thatís a question that Nick Johnson had tackled all his life pretty much, and that is the general topic of our program today.  We are going to switch to another angle, right now, Professor Johnson.

Last week the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut at least 100 million dollars in federal funding to the CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting], which is 25% of its total allocations.  Iíve read reports naming different figures, including 220 million which would be half of the current federal financial support.  The proposal would also eliminate money that stations need to convert to digital programming, to upgrade technology. In addition, funds for the ready to learn program that produces childrenís shows, such as Sesame Street, would also be cut.  All told the cuts in the budget for public television and radio would amount to a reduction of nearly 50%.  The proposal would eliminate all federal funding to the Corporation in two years Ė thatís according to one report.  The House is scheduled to vote on this issue later this week.

You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that CPB is one of the examples that help illustrate your point about the use of public funds.

Now, could you tell us a little bit about the origins of CPB as you see it, as a former FCC Commissioner.

Nicholas Johnson [NJ]:  Sure.

I was, as Dean Acheson once titled one of his books, ďPresent at the Creation.Ē I have one of the presidential pens used to sign the bill, and this was very much a part of what I was working for early on as an FCC Commissioner.

I think one thing that needs to be said about whatís going on as well, indeed the first thing that needs to be said about whatís going on today, is, for goodness sakes, those who are listening now and who are fans of public broadcasting as I always have been, this is the time to write your senators and members of Congress all across Iowa.  Congressman Jim Leach was on this program last Monday [June 20, 2005] and indicated his support for Public Broadcasting, but this is a very serious issue, and obviously would have an enormous blow to what we have come to expect.

There were two or three things we had in mind at the time we created the corporation for public broadcasting and I think a number of them are under attack at the present time.

One of the major purposes was Congressí desire at the time to protect the public broadcasting from itself, from Congress.  Congress was aware that there would be efforts to bring about political intimidation of one kind or another, individuals who would try to utilize public broadcasting to serve the interests of the White House and members of Congress. So it set up longer term grants of funding and it set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as a non-profit public corporation, to be a buffer to protect public broadcasting from political influence.

I think it is clear that that is a major part of what is going on now with this cut in funding.  Weíve seen this administrationís efforts to turn around the voice of America from one of the most respected international broadcasting services in the world, to what is now viewed as simply an instrument of propaganda for this Administration.  Weíve seen what the FCC has done in the name of deregulation, removing virtually any responsibility from commercial broadcast stations, and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.  Weíve seen the way in which this Administration controls the audience that is permitted to attend a presidential event, so that none but enthusiastic supporters of the president will be present.  And weíve seen the constant drum beat on what is characterized as "the liberal media," in spite of the very substantial evidence to the contrary on that one.

I think this attack on the funding of public broadcasting is simply part and partial of that overall campaign and really needs to be seen in that context.

Now, having said that I support public broadcasting, let me bring to bear some of the same kinds of critical analysis that we just finished discussing with regard to the Coralville rain forest.

When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created, we were then funding public broadcasting in this country at roughly 1% of what the civilized nations would spend on public broadcasting. Virtually all the countries of the world concluded that broadcasting was too powerful to put into private hands, too potentially beneficial to the culture to be turned over to commercial interests.  But, in Sweden, Japan, England, Canada, Australia, you name it, they were spending -- whether you measured it in per capita expenditure, percentage of gross domestic product or absolute dollars -- roughly 100 times what we were willing to spend.

My proposal, therefore, at that time, was that we forget public television and concentrate on public radio in the late 1960s and 1970s. Go out and buy, if necessary, two AM and three FM radio stations in the top 100 markets -- along with stations like WOI and WSUI, which have been around since the 1920s.  Program those stations for at least a generation to build the kind of public support for public broadcasting that is necessary in order to get adequate funding.

And then having done that, once you have that kind of public acceptance and support -- which they had in Great Britain, as a result of starting with the BCC before they added commercial broadcasting to it -- once you had that kind of support for public broadcasting, people depended upon it, understood what it could do to improve their lives, then go to them and their elected representatives in Congress and say, "We now want 10 times that amount in order to have public television as well."

Because radio is a bargain in broadcasting.  We can do a program in this [WSUI radio] studio with roughly 10% of what it takes to do a television program in terms of equipment, staff, and studio, in terms of remotes, whatever.  Radio is very cheap.

And that was something we could have done with that money, but we chose instead to go with public television. We built up local boards of directors, local studios, transmitters, towers, whatever, and thatís where the money got spent.

I will also note, initially one of our goals expressly stated, no ambiguity about this, is that public broadcasting was to be a non-commercial service.  It was to stand in stark contrast to commercial broadcasting.  We wanted to have broadcasting that was not influenced by external commercial forces.  Not that we objected to commercial forces, but they already had commercial broadcasting.  This was to be an alternative, like a National Park is an alternative to Disneyland Ė you have both.

So, I think we made a big mistake on two counts.  The first was when Nixon went after McNeal-Lehrer and others that he thought were too liberal. I think the network should have been used at that time to stand up to him and insist on political independence. I think that battle could have been won at that time.

Number two, I think we should have stayed non-commercial.  We now have announcements on these stations, on public television stations, that are virtually indistinguishable from commercial announcements.  They are no longer simply ďThis corporation supports public broadcastingĒ Ė they are actually advertising their product.

The problem with that is, the more commercial you become -- the strategic problem, the political problem -- is the more commercial you become, the more difficult it becomes to argue why public money should go into your enterprise.  If you are out there in the marketplace, and people are willing to donate money, and corporations are willing to buy time on your stations, thereís no longer the argument that there once was as to why public funding is also desirable for this.

Now, I think it is desirable. I think itís unfortunate we are in the position we are in, but as long as we are in it, weíve got to fight for the public money. I donít question that.

But, I think had we refused to take the commercial money, had we stood up and fought for the notion of adequate amounts of public financing, had we started with something that we could afford -- which was radio -- and stuck with it, we could have today the kind of systems that are available alongside commercial broadcasting in Japan, Sweden, England, whatever.  I think the American people are much the worse for not having those kinds of systems and I think thatís too bad.

What we have today is what we have today, and we have to fight for it, and now is the time to do it because it is clearly under attack.

GT: 1-866-780-9100 is our phone number.  We do have an email where you can reach us:  Our phones seem to be working.  We do have an email, Professor Johnson, but it is on a different subject, the Rain Forest.  I just want to read it as a comment and then move on, or actually back, to the subject of public broadcasting.

ďTalk of Iowa, letís donít give all the credit to Senator Grassley for the rain forest funding."

This is an email from Dave in Iowa City.

"There are two houses of Congress. In November 2003 on the day after the $70 million won itís first round of approval in the U.S. House of Representatives" Ė he probably means the 70 million project -- "the point was even considered in the U.S. Senate on this very program, Talk of Iowa. The Coralville city manager profusely thanked Republican Congressman Jim Leach for his critical support to secure the federal dollars for the rain forest.  Representative Leach was quoted on the front page of the Cedar Rapids Gazette the next day as saying that the rain forest might have profound significance and would give the energy bill some support."

This is from Dave, and again, our email address is

Any responses to Dave?

NJ: No, I think that speaks for itself.

GT: It speaks for itself.

Letís take a phone call that is on the topic of public broadcasting.  This is Tom in Iowa City.  Hello, Tom, you are on Talk of Iowa.

Tom: Hi. I just wanted to bring up a point that the Professor already brought up, but maybe a little more emphatically.  It seems as though this administration is kind of hell bent on ideology and as he mentioned, the claims that NPR is so left-wing, whereas in reality, I definitely donít think it is, I think it is one of the most balanced organizations that you could find.  And it makes me kind of wonder whether or not this is the administrationís way of shutting up the release of balanced information.

GT: Okay, thank you Tom.

NJ: For all the reasons I mentioned when I went through them, I think this [charge of "libera bias" and cutting funding] is simply one more example of an effort to control the mass media. In fairness to this administration it is something which politicians and officials in a great many countries around the world, including this one, like to do.  Their notion of "fair and balanced" is unadulterated, continuous and emphatic praise of them and what they are doing.  Anything other than that is viewed as unduly critical and unwanted and liberal and left-leaning and so forth. I would say that is probably true of both political parties and many public officials.

GT:  Tom, in Iowa City, any further questions or comments?

Tom: You know, the claim that public radio and NPR are left-wing, well, gee whiz, during the Clinton administration, he got lambasted by NPR at times.  So, I donít know where that claim can come from.

NJ:  Well, there have also been a great number of studies of public television and public radio in regard to what guests appear. While there is talk in term of "balance" on NPR, the fact is that a grossly disproportionate number of the guests that are used are government officials, people in authority, former government officials, corporate executives.

You just do not hear very often from the Noam Chomskies and Howard Zinns and Ralph Naders and Jessie Jacksons -- and they are not all that far left.  You really donít. The guests are mostly center to right. If you want to email me at my Website, at you will find my email, I will be happy to give you citations to some of those studies.

As the bumper sticker has it, with regard to commercial broadcasting, "The liberal media is just as liberal as its conservative owners will permit it to be."

And I think NPR is very conscious of where its money is coming from, and it goes out of its way to avoid irritating whoever happens to be in power. So I really do think that any suggestion that public broadcasting is anything other than balanced to the right and center is ludicrous.

Tom:  Right.  You hear all the time on public radio about the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation which are relatively right wing, I believe.

NJ:  Last evening they had a fellow on the evening news with Jim Lehrer who was as far right as you can imagine, criticizing public radio, calling for abolition of its funding entirely, and so forth. I would ask you how many commercial stations would ever have that kind of balance on a program? How many times has Rush Limbaugh given equal time to somebody to attack his position?

GT: Tom, thank you for calling Talk of Iowa.

Letís move on to another caller, this is Paul in Des Moines.  He says if NPR goes private, can he buy stock.  This is pretty interesting, Paul.  Thanks for calling.  Go ahead with your question.

Paul:  I was just wondering if we are going to become a private company or whether we are going to go public, whether I should buy stock. Or should I buy News Corp and wait for Ruppert Murdock to pick you guys up.  I am just wondering what I should do here.

NJ:  Iím not sure you mean that as a serious question.  But, this is an interesting example of why it's folly to bring ideology to bear to these questions.

I sometimes ask a business group when I speak, I say, "How many of you consider yourself socialists?" Of course, no hands go up.  Then I say, "How many of you drove to the meeting today along Interstate whatever," depending on what state Iím in, and about half or two-thirds of the hands go up.  I say, "Does it bother you that you are driving on a socialist highway?  Would you prefer that that was owned privately and you paid a toll every mile?"

Itís just crazy.

Or a commercial radio station which is thought to be owned by a corporation.  Well, that was the compromise we came up with. So, yeah, youíve got a license and you own the building and the land. But you have somebody telling you how high your antenna tower is going to be and what kind of a light is going to be on top of it, and how much area your signal can cover, and what frequency you are going to operate on, and whether it is going to be AM or FM, and what the hours of operation are going to be.  So thatís an enormous amount of government involvement in that one.

And when we have local development projects of malls or housing developments or whatever, the city comes in and starts building the roads, or they get a TIF waiver on their property taxes, or they get an out-and-out subsidy, or they get a tax forgiveness break of some kind or other.

Thatís going on all over and weíve got it here with public broadcasting.

Paul: Iíd have to say public broadcasting listeners are just too polite.  We have to get some picket signs and make some noise. Network news is just an infomercial. If it werenít for NPR, I wouldnít know what is going on.  Thanks guys, I appreciate it.

GT:  Thank you Paul, and actually we have another question Ė itís related to Paulís question, it comes from Charlie in Iowa City.

"Jack Schaeffer, editor at large of says government interference, as he calls it, is stifling the airwaves.  He suggests that the government should sell off all the airwaves to the private sector and let them make things much more efficient.  Basically, any and all regulation is bad.  Iím concerned about this notion that business knows best and government is somehow the enemy.  Iíd like your comments."

I think we have made some comments already.  I think we have made some comments already and if you want to just briefly add something and move on to the next caller.

NJ: That pretty much stands by itself as well.

I would note that all the commercial broadcasting licenses in Iowa come up for renewal this year and that there is an organization called ďIowans for Better Local Television,Ē and IBLTV can be found with a Google search if youíd like to get involved in doing something to improve commercial broadcasting in Iowa while you also are helping to support the funding for public broadcasting.

GT:  Hereís Fred from Ames.  Fred, we have a couple of minutes. Thanks for calling. Go ahead.

Fred:  Iím a real conservative voter and a few years ago I swore off voting for Democrats and just after the last election, I swore off voting for Republicans.  But that to me is the root of the problem, it is the two-party system having the grip on this whole situation Ė whoever is in power.  And I am wondering if we will ever be able to get back to something near the Fairness Doctrine. And my second thing would be, do you have anything to say about, on a dispute, the FCC versus the election commission on whatís a news item versus a political item.  Thank you.

GT:  Thank you, Fred.  Nick Johnson?

NJ:  Letís see how much of that can I remember.

The two parties; Tweedle Dum, Tweedle Dee. There was a letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register this morning, I believe, to that effect, and the need for more opportunity for a third party in this state -- which, of course, is vigorously opposed by both Democrats and Republicans.  [There is a growing awareness that with the FCC's deregulation efforts, while permitting ever-larger mergers of media properties, there is a greater than ever need to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.] What was his other question?

GT:  Well, I think we had better wait and encourage Fred to contact you directly at because we have run out of time already.

By the way, if our listeners want to contribute to this discussion further and if they are concerned about CPBís funding cuts, they can call this station 319-335-5730 to get the addresses of their congressmen and senators.

Thank you for being here today, Nicholas Johnson.  We didnít get to talk about the Rolling Stone cover.  You were very young in 1971.

Talk of Iowa was produced by Holly Hart. Iím Gayane Torosyan.