The best news in journalism this week is that The Wall Street Journal editorial page is returning to television with a program on New York's Channel 13/WNET. It will debut at 10 p.m. this Friday. The regulars on the show - led by the Journal's editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, and his deputy, Daniel Henninger - are newspaper heroes. If the show is anything like CNBC's now-canceled "Wall Street Journal Editorial Board with Stuart Varney," it will be some of the most intelligent television on the air.
Forgive us, then, for noting that this makes the Journal the latest to benefit from a federal subsidy from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is funded by the taxpayers at the rate of $377.8 million a year. The CPB - that is, the American taxpayers - are funding the first 26 episodes of the Journal's weekly program, at a cost of $4.48 million dollars, the senior vice president for television programming at the CPB, Michael Pack, told us.
It may be the best money the taxpayers ever spent to subsidize a newspaper, but it is money paid in taxes by all sorts of Americans, including profit-making television broadcasters, like Rupert Murdoch's conservative - alright, "fair and balanced" - Fox News Channel. Why should Mr. Murdoch's taxes go to subsidize a government handout to a competing conservative news and opinion program?
The Wall Street Journal itself has been making this argument for years. In a February 8, 1995, editorial, the Journal wrote "CPB was probably a misguided idea from the start" and scoffed, "We're supposed to accept that while six other broadcast networks and dozens of cable outfits thrive without a penny of taxpayers' money, one broadcast TV network, with a particular set of programs and services, has no choice but to persist with $286 million in federal support."
On September 17, 1999, the Journal issued an editorial on what Congress "should have done a long time ago: cut off the public tap, freeing Barney, Big Bird and the other wonderful PBS creations to find a profitable niche on cable without having to shill for public television's other, more politicized offerings."
When we rang up Mr. Gigot earlier this week to ask about all this, he noted that public television had approached the Wall Street Journal, rather than the other way around.
He said he thought that the battle over ending the subsidy to public television had been fought and lost and that as long as public television is going to exist, it might as well have a diversity of opinions. Fair enough point, as always with Mr. Gigot.
If there's an upside to all this for the taxpayers, it is the prospect that seeing Mr. Gigot and Co. airing their free-market, tax-cutting, internationalist views on the taxpayer dime will make some liberal Democratic members of Congress angry enough that they'll come around to the Wall Street Journal view of the 1990s - that the American government doesn't belong in the domestic television business. In the meantime, we'll be tuning in.