Jim DeMint v. Sesame Street

(Ed. Note: 538 Refugees occasionally hosts guest editorials. This week’s guest is Brian K. White. Regular readers will know him as a refugee from the old fivethirtyeight.com days as 10kZebra. A Seattle native who has worked for nine years as the editor of Glossy News; a humourous and satirical take on the news, he is a voracious consumer of news himself. He splits his time between raising his clever kids and trying to find the elusive unicorn that is the honest politician.)

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)

A recent addition to the fair and balanced Fox News Network, The Wall Street Journal has published an editorial by one of the more outspoken conservative senators. Although Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has publicly said that he doesn’t think openly gay teachers or sexually active single women should be allowed to teach in public schools, there’s no mention of that in The Wall Street Journal.

Senator DeMint’s argument is that the federal government should de-fund The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and therefore PBS, NPR and all affiliate entities. Arguing that the federal government needs to tighten the fiscal belt is an easy call, but one need only look as far as the editorial to ferret out other possible, and more likely, motives.

While executives at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) are raking in massive salaries…

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately of bloated public salaries, with little perspective provided.

Salaries under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and affiliated public broadcasting entities are far lower than those of their for-profit rivals. The head of NPR earns far less than half as much as do counterparts at Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS or any other news outfit, and that includes Current TV.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller

Fox News President Roger Ailes

For comparison, recently-fired NPR CEO Vivian Schiller earned $562,500 last year, to Roger Ailes‘s (not unusual) $14 million. That’s only 4% of what Ailes gets, and both are very large networks.

The so-called commercial free public airwaves have been filled with pleas for taxpayer cash.

It’s hard to tell if this means federal funds, or private citizen donations, but in either case it is exactly how the system is designed to operate. It would be interesting to know how the Senator expects them to fund their operations, but the answer may be that he doesn’t; he simply wants them to disappear.

The Association of Public Television Stations has hired lobbyists to fight the cuts. Hundreds of taxpayer-supported TV, radio and Web outlets have partnered with an advocacy campaign to facilitate emails and phone calls to Capitol Hill for the purpose of telling members of Congress, “Public broadcasting funding is too important to eliminate!”

Lobbying is not an invention of public radio or television, nor is it illegal, nor even frowned upon in Washington. A phone call from a constituent is actually ideal, because it is exactly the way lawmakers can gauge the real public pulse.

But if PBS can pay Ms. [Paula] Kerger $632,233 in annual compensation—as reported on the 990 tax forms all nonprofits are required to file—surely it can operate without tax dollars.

PBS President Paula Kerger

While CEO pay may be disproportionately high, there is no network executive that earns less than three times what she does, and she coördinates more original programming, more stations and more journalists than almost any of her counterparts.

That means she’s getting a third of the pay for twice the work, and it’s all for public broadcasting.

Rush Limbaugh gets more than $38 million, Jay Leno gets $30 million, but it’s unlikely that anyone is getting rich in public broadcasting.

Today’s media landscape is a thriving one with few barriers to entry…

I have worked as a writer and editor on more than a dozen media upstarts over the past nine years, some of them remarkably well-funded, and none of them have been able to scratch the surface.

…Americans have thousands of news, entertainment and educational programs to choose from that are available on countless television, radio and Web outlets.

Yes. Some are liberal, many are Fox (check the news aggregators if you doubt this) and the remaining majority are unfunded bloggers regurgitating whatever they’ve already read with limited original research. When the next big story breaks, readers need funded writers on the ground. Media mega-mergers have already reduced the breadth of journalism and already hampered by the 1985 revocation of the Fairness Doctrine.

Last year it got $420 million. As Congress considers ways to close the $1.6 trillion deficit, cutting funding for the CPB has even been proposed by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission. Instead, Mr. Obama wants to increase CPB’s funding to $451 million in his latest budget.

To keep this in perspective, the total subsidy to public broadcasting, TV, radio and internet combined, would be 0.01% for the 2012 budget year. That’s one-hundredth of one percent. This is not a serious consideration to the total budget.

“Sesame Street,” for example, made more than $211 million from toy and consumer product sales from 2003-2006.

Big Bird

It’s curious that these years were chosen instead of, say, 2008, 2009 or 2010, all years since the recession began and retail sales of discretionary items have fallen sharply. Regardless, nobody gets rich off of Elmo. All of that money goes back to programming, literacy campaigns, and building a rich, vibrant, free, ad-free website for school teachers to share with children eager to have fun while still learning.

Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary Knell received $956,513 in compensation in 2008. With earnings like that, Big Bird doesn’t need the taxpayers to help him compete against the Nickelodeon cable channel’s Dora the Explorer.

Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary Knell

What’s missing is the fact that, if this same CEO goes over to Nickelodeon, which he may very well at some point, he’ll earn three to five times as much for clearing a much lower bar. Conservatives live by the mantra that we can’t stifle executive pay, and the Senator may want to admit that this isn’t exorbitant by the standards set by the Republican right. After all, it was Senator John McCain that said rich is $5 million.

Last year, for example, the Open Society Foundation, backed by liberal financier George Soros, gave NPR $1.8 million to help support the latter’s plan to hire an additional 100 reporters.

It’s difficult to respond if the problem is that they shouldn’t get federal funds, while complaining that they are raising money on their own, so let’s look at the rest of the claim instead.

Soros did not donate the money to hire additional reporters. The donation went to general operations. In fact, PBS/NPR/CPB cut the number of reporters in recent years, but even the math on this claim doesn’t pencil out. $1.8 million divided by 100 reporters would only amount to an $18,000 salary. That’s $8.65/hour excluding employer paid costs like L&I and FICA. That’s less than the minimum wage in Washington state, and less than it costs McDonalds to hire full-time staff.

When NPR receives million-dollar gifts from Mr. Soros, it is an insult to taxpayers when other organizations, such as MoveOn.org demand that Congress “save NPR and PBS” by guaranteeing “permanent funding and independence from partisan meddling,” as the liberal interest group did last month.

One could also say that donating money to a government-sponsored entity is patriotic. Trying to connect MoveOn.org to this discussion is a red herring. If one person purchases collectible stamps from the Post Office, effectively donating without even getting a tax break, and then some organization (related to them or not) goes to congress and asks for guaranteed funding for USPS, it’s awfully hard to suggest a correlation.

But let’s be honest; this has nothing to do with the budget. A similar savings could be had by eliminating one bridge project or by trimming the Agricultural Marketing Service to $804 million. Senator DeMint didn’t vote to stop funding the F22 program until 2009, and those aircraft cost $150 million each. Even Voice of America has a budget in excess of $200 million.

This is just the next wave of Republican attacks on public broadcasting. President George W. Bush tried to slash funding in 2007, and conservative news outlets are still eager to jump on the budget crisis as an opportunity to stifle non-conservative voices.

CPB, NPR and PBS are not the liberal bastions described by conservative news outlets. If they were, they would violate the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, and it would be a crime. One would certainly expect such criminal activity, had it existed, to have been investigated and prosecuted during the George W. Bush administration.

A 2008 study concluded that there are roughly equal numbers of liberal and conservative NPR listeners. There was also the whole fiasco in 2005 when the elusive Fred Mann was paid to fabricate a study of purported liberal bias.

Calling it an “easy decision,” DeMint and colleague Tom Coburn have taken the war of words up a notch, and submitted a bill to formally strip all funding from CPB. This would be an easy way for a conservative to quiet moderate voices, but the bill looks at this point unlikely to pass. Facing a Democratic majority in the Senate, plus the veto power of the President, it’s unclear exactly what the objective is.

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23 Responses to Jim DeMint v. Sesame Street

  1. mclever says:

    Just because folks haven’t said much on this one doesn’t mean we haven’t read it. I’m still digesting the information and will probably have more to say later…

    Great article, by the way!!!!!

  2. Justsayin' says:

    Agreed, excellent article!

  3. Mr. Universe says:

    What I can’t figure out is what the Republicans are more threatened by. Is it:

    A. Because public broadcasting is something they can’t buy and, ergo, control the message or
    B. They really think this is a waste of taxpayer money

    Suspect a little of both but I think squashing the typically non-biased voice of public broadcasting is the primary goal

  4. mclever says:

    @Mr. Universe

    From what I gather from my folks, there is an (unfounded?) assumption that public broadcasting is unabashedly liberal, and that they only report the Democratic side of things as quid-pro-quo for Democratic support of funding for public broadcasting. Anything “public” is necessarily “socialist” which is necessarily “liberal”, ya see? I’m not saying that is an accurate portrayal of NPR or public TV programming, but that’s the perception among some conservatives.

    If you thought that millions of dollars of public money was going to fund exclusively Republican programming, then you probably wouldn’t like it much either. True?

    Considering that I don’t find Sesame Street to be particularly beholden to the Democratic Party, I’m not sure how to undo that perception, but we should recognize that it exists as a starting point for understanding some of the opposition to public broadcasting.

  5. Mr. Universe says:


    Which is curious since many of the supporters of public broadcasting are large corporations; hardly bastions of liberal support. I still don’t see how anyone can watch The News Hour or listen to NPR and think they’re a bunch of flaming liberals. Perhaps it’s because the right has FOX so the presumption is that CPB is the inverse of that and they should be supported by private dollars like FOX. The whole let the market decide thing. I think that’s what got Schiller in hot water. Saying that CPB would be better off without govt. funding, not for calling the Tea Party racist.

    I think pulling govt funding would be the worst thing to happen to CPB because then they would end up being the anti-FOX similar to MSNBC. Or, worst case scenario, cease to exist because let’s face it; not all of CPB programming is ‘Must see TV’

  6. parksie555 says:

    The nuts on the right have Fox, Rush, and Glen, the nuts on the left have MSNBC, and Rachel, (not Keith anymore, even they grew tired of his bullshit). I actually find NPR to be pretty unbiased in their reporting, but generally I only listen to it during drive time. I think some of their commentators are pretty liberal (Daniel Schorr? Diane Rehm?) (not sure if I have the names right) but I think they have also had some conservative commentators (usually guest commentators) as well. I do think the firing of Juan Williams was a disgrace and I suspect that the politics of most of the NPR administrators and reporters lean left.

    All that being said I agree that defunding NPR, Sesame Street, etc is a drop in the bucket with regards to the amount of money spent and that DeMint is politically posturing in a rather reprehensible fashion.

    There are much more important issues to worry about, IMHO.

  7. mclever says:


    Thank you (as always) for a reasonable take on things.


    We may not always agree, but at least I can appreciate your point of view.

  8. dcpetterson says:

    There are much more important issues to worry about, IMHO.

    I agree with you that people should have better things to do than try to de-fund NPR and Public Television. It’s not enough money to help with the budget, and it is incredibly productive and useful to the nation for the small amount it costs. It seems to me the attempt is ideological and partisan, not practical. It would be better for the nation if our elected officials tried to do what was better for the nation.

  9. 10kzebra says:

    @dcpetterson “It seems to me the attempt is ideological and partisan, not practical.”

    For that matter, we just got $2.4 billion back from Florida’s canceled rail project. That’s enough to fund NPR for 2-3 more congresses.

  10. Mr. Universe says:

    From a previous thread but relevant to the topic.

    That link Shortchain provided is a really good break down of the O’Keefe’s Project Veritas editing fraud. The video of the B-Cast is worth a watch.

    You have to scroll down the page a bit to get to the video.

  11. Mr. Universe says:

    Yes, if FOX got govt money, I’d be a little more than irritated. But FOX runs ads. CPB holds annoying campaign marathons and shops for donations from foundations in lieu of ads for the express purpose of avoiding the perception of influence.

    In part of the ambush lunch, Schiller says that he thought NPR could survive without govt. help but in the part that was conveniently edited out he goes on to say that the govt funding helps smaller stations in rural areas. So eliminating that funding would be essentially silence a public voice in some parts of the country.

    This makes me think that Republicans are more interested in controlling the message.

  12. 10kzebra says:

    How that fraudster gets a second of airtime after the lies behind his ACORN hit were revealed is beyond me. I get why FOX et al listen to him, but the rest of the media isn’t likewise obligated.

  13. Pingback: Public broadcasting needs your support

  14. JW says:

    I find sad the attempt to compare the CEO salaries of federally funded organizations to private enterprise CEO’s. Once again an apologist for the left can’t seem to stick to the central issue, and chooses instead to address arguments tangential to the core issue. Shall we also bring in the issue of how much more in taxes the private corporation CEO’s pay? NO, although I could make a great post on this topic in response. Why not? Because it has no bearing on the central issue. The central issue is, Why are NPR and PBS CEO’s making so much while receiving FEDERAL FUNDS, (or more aptly stated as OUR tax dollars?) What private corporations do with their money has no relation to in any way to what federally funded corporations do with their money. It’s comparing apples to oranges. This article is just another mind-numbing wrong-direction approach from a liberal in defense of what some of us consider to be a misuse of the taxes we pay. If these companies can afford to pay these salaries, let them go private and compete the way the rest of America does, by not taking home a salary sometimes in order to grow a business, and then by relying on the superiority of a product to encourage continued growth and higher market shares. Ironically, it seems that the left is only concerned with protecting liberal-friendly CEO salaries, so here’s a question: why doesn’t the author of this article write a nice little editorial in defense of private corporation CEO salaries, just to show how unbiased he really is? Better yet, write an article about how we should tax those private CEO’s more heavily, in order to generate more federal revenue, in order to fund NPR and PBS more heavily, thus increasing the wage structures of NPR and PBS CEO’s so that they match that of private corporations (Yes, that was dripping with every bit of sarcasm I could muster). Perhaps (as was suggested by the author about Senator DeMint’s real motive), if we read this article closely enough, the authors REAL motive will shine through. I know I found it easily enough. Now, regarding the commenter who claims that the small station public voice will be silenced if these companies lose their funding: what public voice? A voice that receives funding from the government must please the politicians who give them that funding, or stated negatively, they must not offend those who hold the purse strings. How do you not see bias in that? In the private sector, you must produce things that people want, then people buy them (support) of their own volition (free will). Getting federal funding for your product reduces one to a weak form of slavery; it the product is of sound quality, as surely NPR and PBS are, then the public (the real public- those exerting free will in their choice of support of these two companies, whether through advertising purchases or donations), will sustain the profitability thus ensuring their future continuation.

  15. Mr. Universe says:


    I think the crux of your complaint lies with the perception that Public Broadcasting is liberally biased. I don’t get that. I find it pretty boring from a liberal standpoint but the whole idea is to remove any influence of advertising or from corporations from the equation (yes, I know corporations donate to Public Broadcasting). If CPB and NPR have to rely on the market for their funding, then they’ll be as susceptible to influence as say, FOX or MSNBC. We won’t know for sure if we’re getting accurate information. Nor will we know if the information we’re getting is being bought by and influenced by corporations and their agendas.

    CPB and NPR aren’t necessarily about profit as much as they are about truthful journalism. There are no CEO’s or shareholders who plan to strike it rich from Public Broadcasting. It’s a service, not a business. That’s a compelling enough reason for me to remain out of the private sector. It benefits everyone.

  16. JW,
    I agree that one can take the comparison between CPB and a private corporation too far. CPB/NPR/PBS can perhaps be more accurately compared to nonprofits, many of whom receive copious funding from our tax dollars.

    That said, the point of the article was not to defend high salaries, but rather to illustrate the degree to which the “funding CPB is bankrupting the nation” meme is a red herring.

    Finally, to your concluding sentence:

    it the product is of sound quality, as surely NPR and PBS are, then the public (the real public- those exerting free will in their choice of support of these two companies, whether through advertising purchases or donations), will sustain the profitability thus ensuring their future continuation.

    This is patently false. There are hundreds of examples I can give of good quality products that lose out in the marketplace to low-quality, but cheap and/or high short-term value competitors. Most people don’t make their television choices based on quality, in the same way that the most popular restaurants aren’t the ones with the highest quality food or preparation.

  17. 10kzebra says:

    @JW “I find sad the attempt to compare the CEO salaries of federally funded organizations to private enterprise CEO’s.”
    I couldn’t agree more. I thought the whole point of attacking CEO salaries was bizarre, baseless and anything but productive. It wasn’t my comparison, that’s why it had to be addressed.

    The comment from JW shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire CPB model, as well as a willful ignorance and real ball gargling of the dishonest right. Quite the trifecta there, commenter.

  18. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    It is my supposition that JW finds offensive and counterproductive the outright subsidies given to the oil and agricultural industries, tax breaks given to many others, even state and local property and sales tax breaks and use of eminent domain to buy property for private industry so they will locate in a particular location.

    After all, this money comes right out of the pockets of the rest of the taxpayers to support private endeavors and add to those private businesses profits!

  19. dcpetterson says:

    Ending sentence of the article:
    Facing a Democratic majority in the Senate, plus the veto power of the President, it’s unclear exactly what the objective is.

    I would speculate the objective is to create a talking point for the next election cycle. I think deMint and the other Teapers are trying to create another boogeyman, as they did with ACORN — someone upon who to blame their failures, and to target as the Enemy of Liberty so as to whip up the paranoid base. Scapegoating CBP is part of the larger targeting of public employees, who soak up a few pennies that otherwise could fall into the pockets of the rich contributors to conservative causes (Koch Brothers, R. Murdoch, etc.)

    I still don’t understand why conservative voters fall for this. That’s the part that confuses me.

  20. 10kzebra says:

    They’re called Low-Information Voters.

    Information, as you must know, has a well documented liberal bias.

  21. Pingback: Good News, Everyone! | 538 Refugees

  22. Pingback: Unemployment Dips, Executive Pay Soars (with little taxes) | GlossyNews.com

  23. Love watching Sun !

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