What You Need to Know About the Assault on NPR and PBS

Megan Tady

Congressional attacks on public media seem to come as regularly as NPR fundraising drives. Every year, as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) pleas for federal funding, some members of Congress denounce public media altogether, while others quietly vote to shave off another sliver of subsidies, rather than eliminate all funding. In the end, the CPB limps away still intact, but wounded. 

On Saturday, the House passed a budget that entirely eliminates funding for public broadcasting.

This year, however, Congress has caught CPB fever, and a handful of members are trying to rid the nation of public broadcasting like it’s the plague. Their good media is bad for you” tactics are working; On Saturday, the House passed a budget that entirely eliminates funding for the CPB.

Without the $420 million in federal support, NPR, PBS, and thousands of locally – owned radio and TV stations will start to crumble. It’s easy to focus on the congressional drama (the Senate will soon vote on its own version of the federal budget). But doing so distracts from the bigger problem: Our nation desperately needs vibrant public media. To put the current battle in a larger perspective, here’s a public media primer.

What is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

The CPB was created by the Johnson administration in 1968 as a taxpayer-funded, private, nonprofit corporation that facilitates noncommercial news and entertainment programming. The CPB supports nearly 1,300 locally owned and operated radio and TV stations across the country, and helps fund some of the programs you may be most familiar with, such as PBS’ Sesame Street, NewsHour, and Frontline, and NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace, as well as American Public Media and Public Radio International.

More than 70 percent of CPB’s funding goes to local stations around the country, providing the lifeblood for broadcasters in rural or economically hard-hit areas where there are fewer sources of news and programming. In some parts of the country, public media are the only source of local news and public affairs programs.

Why are attacks on public broadcasting so frequent?

The CPB is funded through a yearly federal appropriations process fraught with problems that has paralyzed the sector. Members of Congress (mostly Republicans) have always tried to gut funding for public broadcasting, claiming it is a bastion of left-wing propaganda. And while they’ve never been successful, each scouring attempt leaves public broadcasting with less support and forces the CPB to capitulate to congressional programming pressure in an effort to appease its enemies. 

It’s also important to remember that the push to de-fund public broadcasting is part of a larger mission: It’s a war on culture, the arts and free speech. In relative terms, funding for public media is a tiny amount of money. It has almost nothing to do with reducing the deficit; it’s simply an ideological attack. 

Doesn’t public broadcasting have enough money already?

No. In fact, it’s a bit of an embarrassment. The United States has one of the lowest-funded public media systems in the developed world. The $420 million the federal government allocates annually works out to less than $1.50 per person to maintain the system. Compare that to the $30-$130 per person that other democractic nations like the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany dedicate to public media. If the United States spent as much on public media as those countries, it would total $30 billion annually.

In a recent report comparing public media systems around the world, New York University professor Rodney Benson said:

We found that the best public media – the most independent and critical of government – were also the best funded. Safeguarded from the kind of partisan interference that has become all too common in this country, public media in the U.K., Germany, and other leading democracies are a key reason why their citizens are much more knowledgeable about government and international affairs than are U.S. citizens. Our research shows that quality public media strengthen the quality of democracy. Amount of funding isn’t everything. But it does make a difference.

As U.S. newspapers and other corporate media continue to shrink, we should be pushing for more funding for public broadcasting. Instead, the fight today is about stopping an all-out assault on the system. 

Is our public broadcasting system great?

No. It’s good, but not great. It has the potential to soar, to branch out into other forms of media beyond broadcasting, to provide more diverse, local and in-depth reporting, and to fill the void left by a foundering corporate media. But the system is hamstrung by the lack of federal funds and an onerous and problematic appropriations process. 

In search of funds, public radio and television stations are increasingly turning to underwriting – often from corporations – leaving them vulnerable to both corporate and political agendas. And yet, in survey after survey, the American people still rank public broadcasting as one of the best uses of tax dollars. Imagine the news, arts and culture programming we could have across media platforms if we had a public media system that was well-funded and insulated from political meddling. 

Is this attack DOA at Obama’s Door?

Probably. President Obama’s proposed budget leaves funding for the CPB intact, so it’s safe to presume that the president would dash congressional hopes of drowning the program. The Senate will be voting on its own version of a budget in March, and it may not include cuts to the CPB. So what’s the big deal? Well, each successive attack – even if unsuccessful – sends a chilling message across the industry to not offend Congress and forces public broadcasters and the media reform movement to maintain a myopic view of what’s possible for our media system. 

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting explains:

…the politics of the current fight are clear: The right calls for budget cuts because it says NPR and PBS are too left-wing. Liberal defenders weigh in to defend the CPB budget, making few or no demands on public broadcasters. This all but guarantees that public broadcasting will continue to be pushed to the right, and further away from its intended mission.

Instead of pursuing opportunities to correct large problems – such as restructuring the funding mechanism to be more sustainable – public broadcasters and their umbrella organizations who do lobby on Capitol Hill are forced to focus on short-term battles to keep them afloat. 

Should we be pushing for something better?

Definitely. Sign all the petitions and make all the calls you can now to tell your member of Congress you support public broadcasting. But in the long-term, this support must morph into a mandate for a transformed public media system. 

Simply calling for more money through the same appropriations process won’t do it; an independent, supplemental funding mechanism must be created as an endowment for public media in the form of a trust. The trust could be funded in a variety of ways, such as spectrum use fees and advertising taxes. We need to restore the firewall between the ebb and flow of politics and the on-the-ground reality of running public media stations. And we need to create a more diverse public media system (PDF link) that embraces the digital age.

All of this is achievable as long as we don’t get sidetracked by the congressional circus that happens virtually every year. Fortunately, we should be able to juggle two balls at once: stopping the short-sighted attacks on public broadcasting and pushing for a world-class public media system in America. 

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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InThe​se​Times​.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.
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