The Moment of Truth — April 16, 1999

Public Radio’s Bias/CATO

Hi, I’m mejeffdorchen and welcome to the Moment of Truth, the one moment in the broadcast week when what is said is what is meant, without the hidden agenda of extreme capitalism saturating the thematic background signal.

NPR reporter Brian Naylor this week reported on the supposed federal budget surplus. WBEZ reporter Emily Hanford reported on health care options for the poor for WBEZ’s "Chicago Matters" series. And WBEZ began its spring fund drive. In each instance there was the implication of the acceptance by the listener of certain assumptions about power, truth, and economics.

Let’s start with Brian Naylor’s story, because it’s so seemingly innocuous and therefore insidious: the premise of the story: the federal budget surplus may be just an illusion. There’s a brief discussion of this idea, and some expert talking about the government’s special method of accounting that would allow it to see a budget surplus where there is none, because the gov’t fails to take into account its future expenditure obligations. Basically, we learn that, because the government is committed to paying social security in the future, there actually is no budget surplus.

And then suddenly the ground beneath the story shifts. Abruptly we are being spoken to by a member of the CATO Institute, which Brian Naylor informs us is a "libertarian think tank." This guy, apparently oblivious to the notion that the budget surplus is an illusion, starts talking about how the government probably shouldn’t be the entity in charge of handling the extra money – which we were just told doesn’t really exist. What Naylor did in his report is go from one guy saying that there is actually no budget surplus to another guy who says the budget surplus shouldn’t be in the hands of the government. I mean, the second guy, the CATO Institute guy, doesn’t refute the idea that there is no budget surplus. He doesn’t even seem to be in the same universe as that idea. What’s going on? How did we go from "there is actually no surplus" to "let’s put the surplus into the private sector"?

The most charitable inference is that Naylor, thinking he ought to be balanced in his reporting of the story, somehow thought that this was the way to do so, and really wasn’t paying that much attention to what the CATO Institute’s guy was saying.

A second inference is slightly less charitable: remember that the imaginary surplus we’re talking about is money that the government owes future retirees in the form of Social Security checks. This is the same imaginary surplus that the CATO Institute wants to privatize.

Just what is the CATO Institute’s view on the privatization of Social Security? Let me draw your attention to an October 19, 1998 press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy:

Some pointed questions are being raised about the Washington-based Cato Institute’s current embrace of Jose Pinera, who was Chile’s Minister of Labor and Social Security from 1978 to 1980 and is now co-chair of the prominent think tank’s Project on Social Security Privatization.

"Pinera was the Pinochet dictatorship’s labor minister at a time when the country’s trade union movement was suffering one of its worst periods of repression," said Larry Birns, a former senior public affairs officer for the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago, Chile. Birns recalled that "workers were seeing the dismantling of their rights."

Birns added: "Pinera was a vital cog in the Pinochet dictatorship’s ability to implement a draconian labor code. It is simply outrageous for the Cato Institute to have him as co-chair of its Social Security privatization effort. This is an example of crime without punishment and reflects the conservative organization’s contempt for the suffering imposed on Chile’s population during the Pinochet era."

Remember that NPR reporter Brian Naylor CHOSE to quote the CATO Institute in his report, quoted them out of any of thousands of pundits and experts and lunatics he could have picked. The question is, does Naylor share the CATO Institute’s contempt for the suffering imposed on Chile’s population during the Pinochet era? Does he support the implementation of a draconian labor code? Does he support the dismantling of workers’ rights? Further, is he aware of the statistic revealed in Harper’s recently that Chile’s privatized pension system sucks up 13% of its funds in administrative costs, while the US Government’s supposedly backward, bureaucracy-heavy Social Security Administration only uses 1% of its funds for administrative costs? Thirteen to one ratio of bureaucratic waste?

Does Brian Naylor support giving the American worker’s public pension money to private investors to wheel and deal with for their own untaxed capital gain? If not, why choose to quote the CATO Institute in a story about the federal budget and future social security payments? And if so, why didn’t he just come out and state his bias instead of attempting to slip it in surreptitiously and, at best, as a non sequitur?

Naylor’s report aired on WBEZ, the Chicago NPR affiliate. WBEZ also does its own local reporting on topics of interest. On a recent segment of their radio series, "Chicago Matters", WBEZ reporter Emily Hanford reported on health care options for the poor. She was so even-handed regarding whose responsibility it was that some poor people go without adequate health care that she effectively said nothing. Except for one small item. She mentioned the idea of a system of universal health care and called it, quote, a "controversial plan" – unquote.

Now, a single-payer health plan may be controversial. But in poll after poll, the US public comes out in favor of some kind of universal health care. With a vast majority behind it, such a concept can hardly be called "controversial". And in the rest of the developed world universal health care is not only not controversial, but is simply taken for granted as the duty of a civilized society to its citizens. In fact, only in a few small, specialized sectors of the US population would universal health care come up against much opposition. One such minority population would be members of conservative think tanks such as the CATO Institute. Another would be insurance companies and other institutions of extreme capitalism who are often mentioned as funders of public radio programs. A third would be news media professionals, whom research has shown poll out as being significantly more economically conservative than the general public.

Yesterday, during the spring fund drive, WBEZ programming manager Tory Malatia was talking up contributing to so-called "public radio" as a community-oriented thing to do. As if one were doing the public a service by contributing to public radio, as if it were a kind of communal activity, as if so-called public radio were some kind of communal entity. Such discourse is baloney, and assumes – probably correctly – that the idea of community current in Chicagoland is such a pale ghost of what it actually means to be part of a community that some dictatorial station manager can twist the term "community" around to indicate an organization that is in no tangible way responsive to the desires of its members. Members spoke out most vocally against the firing of Stuart Rosenberg, the cancellation of Metropolis and CBC News, and the many drastic schedule changes unilaterally executed from the top down. The fact that such an entity puts up an email bulletin board that absorbs listener comments like a black hole, returning nothing but dark emptiness – that such an entity can have the gall to call itself Communal and refer to its barely-tolerated patrons as Members is one of the most egregious symptoms of semantic barbarism of our barbaric age.

I myself, like most people, don’t consider my community peers to be insurance companies, transnational corporations, policy-makers for fascist dictators, or rightwing media commissars. And I don’t really think that radio which, inadvertently or not, espouses the values of the private corporations that are some of its biggest donors, has any right to call itself "public". The term "public" has become all but meaningless.

I don’t give to public radio, because it’s not public. There may once have been public radio in Chicago. Perhaps it will rise again. Don’t hold your breath.

Until next time, I’m mejeffdorchen and this has been the Moment of Truth.