The Bombast Tax


June 2, 2005


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An old front in the campaign against public broadcasting opened up again the other day. For weeks, Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has inveighed against the left wing bias of public broadcasting, and has taken steps to impose his own right wing views. This is despite the overwhelming listener support of public radio and television.

It is not surprising that Fox News would echo Tomlinson’s views. Fox is after all a model of the “fair and balanced” reporting to which public broadcasting presumably should aspire. But a Fox reporter has offered another twist on the theme. Here’s what Scott Novell, chief of the Fox London bureau, told The Wall Street Journal on May 20th:

“Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly. And those who hate us can take solace in the fact that they aren’t subsidizing Bill’s bombast; we payers of the BBC license fee don’t enjoy that peace of mind. Fox news is, after all, a private channel and our presenters are quite open about where they stand on particular stories. That’s our appeal. People watch us because they know what they are getting.”

I owe that quote to William Rivers Pitt, correspondent for the online journal Truthout. As Pitt points out, Novell here has given away the game. Fair and balanced, by Fox’s standards, means letting a lefty on the air once in a while. It means “occasionally” letting them finish a sentence. One suspects that’s Tomlinson’s view too.

It also means, I gather, not actually experiencing that about which one is pontificating. If Novell actually watched public television, he would know that right wing commentary has not been lacking. William F. Buckley, John McLaughlin, Robert Novak et. al. These are bona fide right wingers. They didn’t just get to finish an occasional sentence. They’ve had their own shows. Would someone please show me a left-wing lineup of similar heft on Fox?

(Besides, genuine lefties laugh at the notion that public broadcasting is a hotbed of radical reporting. Tepidly centrist and respectable, with a slight tilt to the left to balance off the corporate media, and an occasional strong voice, would be a better description. Right wingers know this. But they also know that the more they bellyache and “work the ref,” the more accomodating the reporting will become. )

But the thing that is most interesting about Novell’s statement is the harrumphing about the “subsidy” for public broadcasting. Unlike those leeches at public broadcasting, he is saying, Fox carries its own weight, and therefore is entitled to say whatever it damn well pleases. (The implication is that Mr. Novell carries his own weight too, even though he simply gets a paycheck from on high every two weeks just as his counterparts at public broadcasting do.)

Where exactly does he think Fox gets its money? It’s from advertisers. And where do those advertisers get that money? From you and me. Do they bother to ask us whether we want the money we pay at the store to help keep Bill O’Reilly and his cohorts on the air, let alone pay their bloated salaries? Do they even inform us that part of our money is going to this cause — our “hard-earned money,” as the Fox folks like to say — when the subject is taxes?

No one ever has asked me. I have yet to buy a product that tells me on the label that part of the purchase price will go to pay the salaries of Bill O’Reilly and Scott Novell. Or Rush Limbaugh either.

Let’s be more specific here. One big advertiser on O’Reilly is General Motors. General Motors doesn’t ask the people who buy its cars whether they want part of the sales price to go to Mr. O’Reilly. They just do it. I have a hunch that not all GM customers would approve. Another big advertiser is SBC Communications. I know for a fact that not all of its customers would improve. That’s because I’m one of them.

At least when the government spends my tax money on public broadcasting, it’s on the table for all to see. When SBC spends my price money on corporate right wing broadcasting, the amounts are hidden; and I don’t even know it’s happening if I don’t watch the show. They are taking the money I think I’m spending on telephone service, and using it to support self-righteous blovinators instead. That’s a subsidy, Mr. Novell. A subsidy from me to you.

Call it the Bombast Tax. Yes, let’s do. Because that’s what it is.