A Trojan Horse in Washington

"Tax proposed to fund Public TV, radio," read the newspaper headline. The Working Group for Public Broadcasting, described as a "private study group," was proposing to free public broadcasting "from improper political and commercial influences" by replacing its $228 million in congressional appropriations and $70 million or so in corporate funding with $600 million to be raised from a new sales tax on electronic equipment. The article went on to say that the proposal was being sent to the congressional panels concerned with communications (ie, the commerce committees), where it could become the basis for a new Public Broadcasting Act.

Commerce committees, eh? Was this just another fiendish scheme from those wonderful folks who brought you the Gore-Waxman Copycode bill?

Well, maybe not. I subsequently obtained a copy of the formal proposal, as well as the WGPB's press release of December 13 (portions of which are printed in the Sidebar on subsequent pages). After reading those documents, I was guardedly optimistic. The membership list was impressive, as was the fact that the project was chiefly funded not by the record and movie industries, but by the Gannett Foundation. They seem like reasonable people who might be willing to listen to a reasonable counterproposal. So after mulling over the question of how best to approach them—and how to avoid a polite brushoff from some well-meaning but overzealous underling—I settled on the open letter from Stereophile that appears on the following pages.

There are some good points in the WGPB's proposal, and most of it deserves serious consideration. The level of funding they envision, for example, could allow PBS and NPR to grow into a true American counterpart of the BBC.

It would be nice to have a Beeb of our own, but not at the cost of a licensing system like Britain's and not even at the cost of a special excise tax on electronics. Isn't it ironic that, while the British government is considering ways of weaning the BBC off its dependence on user license fees, an American group could advocate a system of making consumers directly support noncommercial broadcasting?

Of course, the worst thing about this plan is that the Hollywood sleazemeisters could use any bill incorporating it as a sort of legislative Trojan horse: a tax on consumer electronics to support public broadcasting could be viewed, by those so inclined, as a precedent for a tax on blank tape and recorders to "compensate" the movie and record industries for their imaginary losses.

Fortunately, the WGPB can easily preclude that possibility by repudiating its proposed 2% tax on electronics and embracing our alternative funding plan instead. We hope they will.