We’re great fans of PBS TV, and maintain membership through monthly contributions. But while at one time, PBS programming was unique, the TV landscape has totally changed, and today most viewers have hundreds of choices. PBS is no longer even noncommercial, with ads little different from those elsewhere. So I agree with Mitt Romney that taxpayers should not continue subsidizing this; since PBS caters to more upscale viewers, it’s one more example of welfare for the rich.
Some accuse PBS of left-wing bias, and though that’s certainly true of Bill Moyers shows, in general the network does strive to be neutral and fair. Among news discussion programs, The McLaughlin Group always balances the political viewpoints of its participants, and those on Washington Week never let slip such personal leanings.
Similar things can be said of National Public Radio. But not the local NPR affiliate, WAMC. I listen all the time, and it has some great stuff (the book guy, Joe Donahue, is terrific). However, while its boss and ubiquitous on-air presence, Dr. Alan Chartock (quoted on Wikipedia) insists that it maintains editorial neutrality and includes as many conservative commentators as liberal ones, that is laughably disingenuous. I myself was once, 30 years ago, a “conservative” WAMC commentator (I was dropped; perhaps I wasn’t very good). Since then, the station’s left-wing slant has become much more blatant. It gives a few minutes weekly to one token conservative opinionist (Herb London); all the rest are on the left. The Alternative Radio show has hour-long hard left rants. Chartock himself, who hogs a lot of air time as WAMC’s “political commentator” and chief interviewer, while also emceeing frequent call-in shows as well as thrice annual week-long fund drives, does not even try to soft-peddle his cheer-leading for Democrats and “progressives” and their pet causes like anti-fracking. He openly declares he backs Obama and relentlessly smears Republicans. During the recent fund drive, he made clear that he was asking “progressives” (and, really, only them) to support “their” station. “Just because you’re progressive,” Chartock said, “doesn’t mean you don’t have money!” (He should know, with his $200,000 salary.) And after the presidential debate, the fund drive patter was pointedly all Big Bird.
Not surprisingly, WAMC has indeed cultivated an overwhelmingly left-leaning and devoted fan base. Its political call-in shows are almost completely one-sided. When there is a rare dissonant voice, Chartock claims to welcome that; however, while he fawns over callers who agree with him, he is generally curt and dismissive toward those who don’t. I have experienced this myself more than once; no wonder he gets few such calls. (Is Chartock as bad as Hannity, et al? No. But bad enough.)
Wikipedia’s WAMC article notes that NPR’s official policy for affiliate stations is to be “fair, unbiased, accurate, honest, and respectful of the people that are covered.” WAMC conspicuously violates this policy. Wikipedia quotes a Washington-based NPR news producer who happened to tune in to WAMC while on a New York trip, who said that Chartock’s in-your-face political bias made his jaw drop to the floor and “really freaked me out.” He was disturbed that Chartock’s “crazy” behavior undermines NPR’s effort to maintain public confidence in its fairness.
WAMC may be violating not only NPR policy but also, arguably, the law. It is a charitable 501(c)(3) organization, receiving tax-deductible donations. Partisan politics are off-limits to such entities. This has been a big issue for churches, when candidates are endorsed from pulpits. Why shouldn’t the same strictures apply to Chartock’s overt on-air partisanship?
I’m a free speech absolutist, and if Chartock wants to run a “progressive” radio station, that’s fine. But don’t try to tell us it is neutral and unbiased. Don’t cloak it as a “public” radio station. And don’t ask taxpayers to fund it.
But he does, and we do, and not only via the tax-deductibility of contributions.* Some years back, Chartock tried to drum up donations by claiming a supposed Republican conspiracy to silence WAMC by cutting its state funding.** (Why would they, if the station wasn’t biased?) But since then, the conspiracy of silence seems to be about WAMC’s public funding itself. The station’s budget is not made public – perhaps odd for an organization soliciting donations. And for all the declamations of solidarity with Big Bird in the fund drive, I didn’t hear a word about WAMC itself receiving public funding as well.***
After some internet sleuthing, I was able to confirm that WAMC does receive money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gets $400 million annually from the federal government. The station also gets money from the New York State Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting, whose website says the details of such funding can be found on the websites of each recipient broadcaster; but for WAMC, such is not the case. So I still don’t know the amounts. I guess transparency and honesty are not “progressive” values.****
Taxpayer support for a radio station with such an openly partisan political stance is simply wrong. Especially if only one side of the political debate is being thusly funded. Do any right-wing broadcasters receive public money like WAMC? I don’t think so.
WAMC and Big Bird ain’t birds of a feather; Big Bird’s feathers are not colored “progressive.”
* When a donation is tax deductible, effectively the Treasury pays for part of it. Political contributions are not tax-deductible.
** An oft-heard Chartockism is, “I don’t want to engage in conspiracy theories, but … “ Another favorite tactic to scare up donations is threatening to drop the most popular programs like Car Talk and, recently, Alternative Radio. “I’ll yank it right off the air,” Chartock said, “and don’t think I won’t.” I do think he won’t.
*** Also curiously never heard from is WAMC’s Board of Trustees which, strangely for a “progressive” outfit, is not elected by the membership. While WAMC’s website lists the trustees, there is no clue about how they’re selected. Nor any contact information.
**** The fund drives always feature “challenges” where some donor says he’ll give $X if they can raise a certain amount by a certain deadline. As the deadline nears, they always seem far short. Yet somehow they always claim to make it. Fishy? [Added 10/15: this footnote, upon more considered reflection, is snarky, and I would delete it if I didn’t feel doing so would be dishonest.]