"I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too," Mitt Romney told Jim Lehrer in the most quoted line from the first presidential debate. "But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."
Romney's call to cut the $445 million a year the federal government contributes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which subsidizes PBS and NPR, amounts to a paltry 1/100th of 1% of the federal budget.
A co-creator of "Sesame Street" dismissed Romney as "silly."
But is Romney right? Probably.
Candidates and parties aren't important. Ideas are. If we're ideologically consistent and if we want to appear credible when we criticize right-wingers like Romney, we have to hold ourselves to the same (or higher) standards as those to which we subject our enemies. We have to admit when they're correct, even—especially—when it's about something as trivial as this.
This is a time when we have to give the devil his due.
Until recently I was unaware of the exorbitant salaries received by executives and top employees of federally-subsidized broadcasting networks. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last year, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina pointed out that PBS paid its president and CEO, Paula Kerger, more than $600,000 a year—more than the President of the United States." Kevin Klose, president emeritus of NPR, received more than $1.2 million in compensation, according to the tax forms the nonprofit filed in 2009," wrote DeMint. "Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary Knell received $956,513 in compensation in 2008." (Now Knell runs NPR, which pays him about $575,000.)
Actor Carroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, was paid more than $314,000 last year.
The liberal Center for American Progress countered: "While those numbers are not exactly chump change, it's pennies compared to the salaries of another industry the U.S. taxpayers subsidize at much higher cost—Big Oil."
But that's red-herring sophistry. Wasteful federal spending on overpaid executives is wrong, whether it's for planet-murdering energy corporations or on a network that airs free educational TV that helps ready kids for school with basics like counting, math and even Spanish. Kill both.
"Like for-profit media companies, Sesame [and PBS] needs to pay top dollar to attract talent," MSN's Jonathan Berr argues.
NPR and PBS do an OK job reporting the news—as long as it happens on a weekday—but that's not the point.
If you accept public money, you're in public service and should get paid accordingly. If you can't find someone qualified to run NPR or PBS, or an actor up to the task of playing Big Bird, for $100,000 a year—especially in this job market—you're not looking hard enough. Something is off-kilter when the studios of publicly-funded shows like NPR's All Things Considered are centrally located and sumptuously furnished with mahogany tables and the latest high-tech gadgetry, while those of privately-owned 50,000-watt talk-radio powerhouses are situated in the slums and look like 1970s-era flophouses.
Salary figures for NPR "stars" like Robert Siegel ($341,992), Renee Montagne ($328,309), Steve Inskeep ($320,950), Scott Simon ($311,958) and Michele Norris ($279,909) are three to four times more than top-rated talk-radio hosts in the biggest markets get. How dare these one-percenters shake us down during pledge drives, much less collect federal tax dollars?
PBS receives about 15% of its funding from the feds. For NPR it's even smaller: about 2%. As a former NPR executive confided, the media groups might be better off cutting the strings given the political heat they take over it. Then they'd be free to stop giving lying conservatives "equal time" to seem "fair."
Why is the government giving broadcasters money they don't need? There's a much stronger argument for propping up newspapers, which remain the original source of 95% of news stories. Print media is in big trouble: the newspaper industry has shrunk 43% since 2000. Analysts say that even that chart-filled ubiquitous denizen of hotels USA Today may fold. If the fed want to do something good for journalism—and the well-informed populace required for vibrant democracy—it should start by subsidizing print newspapers.
But only if their editors and publishers don't get paid ridiculous salaries.
Ted Rall is a columnist, cartoonist, author and independent war journalist. He is the winner of numerous awards and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His new book is The Book of Obama: How We Got From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.