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Public or Private?

The past few weeks, Amtrak and the Public Broadcasting Service, two government-funded organizations, have had to do a bit of soul-searching. The nature of these public-private institutions is a curious one. While both Amtrak and PBS provide much-needed services, both are dependent on government funding, and subject to the wit and whimsy of a political sphere that’s become way too acrimonious.

The past few weeks, Amtrak and the Public Broadcasting Service, two government-funded organizations, have had to do a bit of soul-searching. The nature of these public-private institutions is a curious one. While both Amtrak and PBS provide much-needed services, both are dependent on government funding, and subject to the wit and whimsy of a political sphere that’s become way too acrimonious.

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President Bush has proposed eliminating all of Amtrak’s funding, about $1.2 billion, in the next budget, effectively dismantling the national rail service, and parceling out the money to individual states, who would use the money to contract private regional train operators. (Of course, the reason why Amtrak and all the other state-run railroads were created in the first place was because the private regional train operators were going out of business.) Still, Amtrak is a bulky organization in need of serious changes. I’m willing to accept that it will always need some subsidizing–one need just to look at the disastrous results of Britain’s privatization of the railroads in the ’90s. But Amtrak (and NJ Transit too, but Ill get to them in another blog entry) could be run a helluva lot better. And I love taking the train to work, too. When it’s clicking over the rails through the New Jersey meadowlands, I see the traffic backups on the Turnpike and wonder why more people dont take the train. I realize why when Im stuck on a platform in sub-zero weather because of “switching problems.”

Meanwhile, PBS is trying to figure out what it wants to be as its president, Pat Mitchell, said she’d be stepping down next year, and as the network faces decreasing corporate underwriting and increasing criticism from conservative critics (Google “Buster the rabbit” and see what turns up) and competition from cable channels. Most certainly, it will have to retain Masterpiece Theater and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, but will have to do something more original to define itself from the plethora of other channels out there. I thought “Colonial House” was a step in the right direction–a decent reality show with education built in. But it’s going to take more than giving Tucker Carlson airtime. Or maybe it’s trying to strengthen its ascot- and bowtie-wearing demographic.

Perhaps both arguments boil down to how involved you believe government should be in quasi-public institutions. So, how do you think Amtrak should be restructured? Can it be fixed? What can PBS do to win back viewers without resorting to wardrobe malfunctions?

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