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. 

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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