This morning, as I have done almost every morning for the past 20 years, I switched on the radio to listen to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Later, if I have the time, I will listen to "All Things Considered." These are the two best news shows on the air -- on any air, radio or television -- and they are my answer to a headline The Washington Post put on a recent George Will column: "Who Needs Public Broadcasting?" I do.
Will, clearly, does not. He says, as do others, that public broadcasting is vaguely socialistic, not to mention redundant. The old network monopoly (ABC, CBS, NBC) is gone. Now we have more networks and, of course, cable -- 500 or so channels. Anything done on public television can be found on cable.
But not those two public radio news shows. Nothing like them exists anywhere else. They are not on commercial radio and certainly not on commercial television. You can surf those mythical 500 channels (who has 500 channels?) until your remote control unit gives you carpal tunnel syndrome and not find a commercial TV news program that comes close, in quality or reach, to what is done daily by "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered."
By and large, TV news is a joke. The network news shows are now parodies of themselves -- anchors standing and anchors walking and anchors pretending to bring you an in-depth report when, half the time, they are rehashing that morning's paper. Compared with what they once were, these network shows are to journalism what burlesque was to theater. Once-proud news organizations now report to accountants. Bureaus all over the world have been closed, and great reporters talk like boobs -- simple sentences, simple words: simply awful.
The public radio shows -- and PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" -- are of a much higher quality. They retain an interest in foreign news that the networks, short of war, mostly ignore. These shows also cover America better than any newspaper I know, and while they are just goofy about space shots, Antarctica and regional cooking (Hi, Linda), for public radio's 29 million listeners, they help bind the nation. They make us one community.
This is important. If there is a single, although unstated, theme running through the Republican argument about why we all deserve a tax break ($792 billion over the next 10 years), it's that we don't owe each other very much. The GOP keeps saying the surplus belongs to each of us -- not, mind you, all of us -- and we ought to get it back. It's all about the individual. It's not about the collective.
But the collective -- a fusty term from a bygone era -- has certain legitimate demands. For instance, it may be true that cable television has some dandy programming for children. But "Sesame Street" comes free, and free is all that some people can afford. In a different sphere, it may be true that the national parks have been improved since fees were instituted, but some people cannot afford those fees -- and the parks (or museums) by all rights ought to be theirs to enjoy as well.
With PBS, with the national parks, with a whole lot of programs, we are not talking much money. (Public broadcasting gets only 15 percent of its funds from the government anyway.) But we are talking about the public realm, of the use of government funds (our money) to create or perpetuate something that otherwise would not exist. No cable channel, no network -- no nobody -- is going to do what public broadcasting does. The proof is there: No one does. Its market is too small, too old -- too uninterested in buying an SUV when a mere car will do just fine, thank you.
I could live without most public broadcasting -- even the classical music programs. But Scott Simon on Saturday, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" during the week -- these are essential listening. I pay for them, contribute to my public radio stations, but I like it that my government contributes, too. Otherwise, sooner or later, public broadcasting -- like its commercial counterpart -- will be dumbed down. Already, PBS airs specials such as Yanni's "Live at the Acropolis" that make you cringe. In the search for scratch, public broadcasting will find virtue in mediocrity.
One morning, if conservatives and the market have their way, I will wake to Howard Stern or rip-n'-read all-news radio or maybe someone making a salad on the "Today" show. I'll hear nothing from the Balkans and nothing about culture and very little, even, about my own country. I'll crave radio reporting that sometimes has me sitting in the car, motor idling, afraid I'll miss something precious just by running into the house.
Who needs public broadcasting? We all do.