There was plenty of passionate poppycock on the House floor last week, as members debated the Republicans' "emergency" bill to eliminate funding for National Public Radio. Although the bill passed, as did a proposal last month to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, neither measure will advance beyond the House chamber.
And while most of the arguments from both sides tap-danced around the issues, a level-headed reassessment of federal spending for public TV and radio is overdue. Republicans rushed to judgment to take advantage of NPR's recent spate of bad publicity -- the latest incident involving nasty cracks about conservatives by NPR's chief fund-raiser, Ron Schiller, recorded in a hidden-camera sting. Schiller was appropriately asked to leave NPR, as was his boss.
But the secret video proves nothing about NPR as an organization, nor does Schiller's behavior qualify as grounds to defund an operation that serves some 27 million listeners a week. The real issues are straightforward. Republicans don't like spending taxpayer money on what many perceive as a liberal-leaning network, when the "private sector" is doing such a smashing job of promoting conservative views on commercial radio.
Democrats believe the money is well spent, considering the pounding they are taking from Fox News and conservative broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh. As Democrats see it, NPR need not be liberal; the absence of overt conservatism is sufficient.
Thursday's floor show in the House was risible. Republican Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, said with a straight face that defunding NPR would encourage more hiring by forcing rural stations to create new local programming. She went so far as to list 17 different jobs needed to produce a single radio show -- staffing levels that didn't exist even in radio's heyday decades ago.
Democrat Anthony Weiner, of New York, spent an embarrassing two minutes delivering a standup comedy routine about how Republicans hoped to solve the economic crisis by destroying the NPR series "Car Talk" -- as if that was the point, which it clearly wasn't.
Republican Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, inched closer to the truth, as he sees it, by charging NPR with "advocating one ideology" and "veering far from what people want to [hear]." That's not true about NPR or the public -- with 69 percent of Americans favoring federal funding of public radio.
Across the aisle, Steve Israel, head of the Democrats' Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote, "If the Republicans had their way, we'd only be left with the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to dominate the airwaves." That's horribly misguided, because it suggests that NPR's mission is to defuse the message of conservative broadcasters, or to present the "other side" of political controversies, which it is not.
The real question, perhaps better left for a time when a semblance of bipartisanship returns to Capitol Hill, is whether the public is best served by federal involvement in broadcasting. When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by Congress in 1967, the media landscape was dramatically different. Back then, a better case could be made for providing quality government-supported radio and TV, especially in rural areas. In the digital age, that's not really necessary.
It's worth noting that C-SPAN, an arm of the cable-TV industry that receives no taxpayer funds, provides the most fair and well-produced coverage of government imaginable. The explosive growth of the Internet, along with cable and satellite systems, make the need for public TV and radio less clear cut. Although the latest attempt to defund NPR will not succeed, the House debate alone will apply unreasonable pressure to the workings of the network that, at most, gets only 10 percent of its revenue from taxpayers.
Is it worth it? Even disgraced NPR fund-raiser, Ron Schiller, conceded, "It is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding.''
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera," and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.