M.D. Harmon: A Plea for "Maine Private Radio"


Gov. Paul LePage, who just can’t keep his hand off “third-rail” issues, grabbed on to another one when he proposed to do away with the state’s contribution to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in his proposed budget for the coming biennium.

He even went so far as to call the spending “corporate welfare.”

Like the chirping of the many birds now filling the trees around Chez Harmon, the cries of anguished liberals ascended to the heavens in terms that would make even angels weep.

This is a symphony that has been played before, and the appropriate players filled their roles with accustomed virtuosity.

Journalists found people in the street to decry it (“People who are less fortunate really rely on MPBN to know what’s going on in the state,” one woman told the Press Herald, thereby informing every other TV and radio news department in Maine — including the paper she was being quoted by — that their efforts to cover the news were ineffective and incomplete at best and incompetent at worst.)

And MPBN’s president and CEO, Mark Vogelzang, said his operation would suffer deeply if the state ended its $1.9 million contribution, which represents 17.4 percent of the network’s $11.2 million budget.

I don’t know if MPBN is a sacred cow, a sacred goat, a sacred weasel or some other sort of totemic animal deity, but the idea that government needs to invest in news (or any other sort of programming) has historically been as dear to liberals as it is anathema to conservatives.

One thing those of us on the right fail to see is why, in a media environment saturated with news operations, taxpayers need to subsidize the competition.

Because such operations are redundant, their supporters are left arguing that they either 1) do a better job of covering “the important issues” that commercial news operations somehow either are ignorant of or can’t be bothered with as they are too focused on trivia, or 2) public broadcasting serves “the poor” who otherwise couldn’t afford news.

One MPBN defender quoted by the Press Herald was described as “especially” worried “that cuts to MPBN would hurt disabled people and people who are housebound.”

Sigh. Does he not know that TV and radio penetration is as close as possible to 100 percent among people who live in places with roofs, and broadcast stations devote hours every day to world, national and local news programming.

The first view is more interesting, however, because it invests newsies who are paid at least partially with public funds with powers of insight and discernment that their intellectually feeble commercial counterparts simply don’t possess.

In truth, the argument is a smokescreen designed to preserve at partial taxpayer expense a service utilized primarily by elites and addressing elite concerns, as surveys of listeners continually prove.

I couldn’t find a description of listener demographics on MPBN’s website, but National Public Radio has one, and it’s just what you thought it was.

NPR boasts that its audience is “well-educated” (65 percent have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 25 percent for the population as a whole, and listeners with graduate degrees are three times the national average); the majority (86 percent) is white; and the audience’s median household income is $86,000, far above the national median of $55,000.

Yes, public broadcasting has its liberal tinge, but mostly it aims at people with sufficient funds to patronize the upscale causes and interests it covers and supports. That many of them are also of interest to people on the left is a fact, but not the key one.

The important issue about public funding is that every Maine taxpayer, no matter what his income, subsidizes a service patronized by highly paid elites. The governor is right to oppose it, because it is unconscionable on its face.

Despite that unsavory reality, there’s no guarantee that the funding will be cut. Lawmakers are just as vulnerable as anyone else to pleas not to “hurt the poor,” even if such cries are demonstrably deceptive, serving only as an excuse for publicly subsidized privilege.

As one commenter on the Press Herald’s website put it, “Why do Democrats hate poor people and want to use $1.9 million per year for MPBN programming, instead of funding food pantries, heating needs, hospitals and shelters?”

If people who are more highly educated than the average, make more money than most of us and are demographically Caucasian-American want to have their own special source of news and entertainment, that’s fine.

But they can darn well pay for it themselves.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at mdharmoncol@yahoo.com.