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Should the Government Defund Public Broadcasting?

by Gary Susman, posted Mar 11th 2011 8:00AM
ElmoSickle me, Elmo.

There's an air of doom at both PBS and NPR this week amid the current PR disaster over comments NPR's fundraising chief made during a video sting by conservative political activists. The result could mean the end of government funding for public broadcasting.

During a lunch meeting with activists posing as wealthy radical Muslims pretending to offer a $5 million grant to the public radio network, the impostors secretly filmed NPR's Ron Schiller making disparaging comments about Republicans and Tea Partiers. But even more damning may have been Ron Schiller's filmed remark that NPR doesn't really need federal funding and might even be better off without it.

NPR brass quickly disavowed Schiller's comments and booted him out the door (NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, no relation, was forced out as well), but the remarks seemed to validate the vote House Republicans made last month to cut funding for NPR and PBS from about $450 million per year to zero. The elimination of all federal funding for public broadcasting may not pass the Senate or President Obama's veto pen, but still, the whole imbroglio raises questions worth asking: Could public broadcasting survive and even thrive without federal money? Should the government be involved at all in funding culture? Can it afford to? In a 500-channel universe, is the programming provided by PBS and NPR not just a redundancy but an irresponsible luxury? Or would public broadcasting stations, along with many beloved shows, wither away without taxpayer dollars?
Republican efforts to trim public broadcasting's budget have been an annual ritual in Congress for at least a decade, but this is the first time the House has voted to eliminate the funding altogether. The old Republican argument against public broadcasting was that it was too liberal, an argument seemingly bolstered not just by the current scandal but also last fall when NPR fired Juan Williams after he expressed inflammatory opinions as a guest on Fox News. NPR said Williams had violated the radio network's ethics code, but Williams - and his new colleagues at Fox News, which hired him right after his firing - blamed political correctness.

But the bias argument doesn't hold much water anymore. There's no evidence that Ron Schiller's dismissive opinions about Republicans and Tea Partiers (which he stated in the sting video were his own and not those of the organization) are shared by other executives or the network's news editors and correspondents. (Indeed, NPR's reporting about the Tea Party has been respectful and fair in such stories as these.) The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the decision-making body behind NPR and PBS, has been overseen for several years now by Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee. And PBS and NPR both have received plenty of criticism from the left arguing that, if anything, public broadcasting has been just as susceptible to bias in favor of its corporate underwriters and pressure from Republican complaints. Besides, news programming only makes up a fraction of the programming at PBS, alongside science shows, documentaries, highbrow fare like 'Masterpiece' and kids' programs - which have also caved to conservative pressure (remember the censorship flap over the 'Postcards from Buster' episode that saw nothing amiss about a family headed by a lesbian couple?).

So now, the argument is for austerity. Explaining the Feb. 19 vote to zero out funding for public broadcasting by 2013, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) recently told NPR listeners, "We've got ourselves in a mess as a nation fiscally and that we're going to have to make some tough decisions." In the wake of the Schiller exposé, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) issued a statement saying that Congress' concern "is not about any one person at NPR, rather it's about millions of taxpayers. NPR has admitted that they don't need taxpayer subsidies to thrive, and at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them." Rep. Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.) put it more bluntly: "Big Bird needs to be pushed out of the nest."

Not that cutting public broadcasting would save very much money. The $450 million per year spent on public broadcasting represents about 0.003 percent of the federal budget, or $1.35 per American citizen.

NPR logoThat money makes up only about 10 percent of the annual budget for the 368 public television stations, 934 public radio stations and all their affiliated websites, but that 10 percent serves as seed money that attracts the rest of public broadcasting's funding, which comes from corporate underwriters, charities and listener/viewer pledges.

Public broadcasting stations have launched an online PR drive to save their funding at 170MillionAmericans.org. The campaign's name refers to the claim that more than half the people in the U.S. are viewers, listeners, or online users of public broadcasting stations and websites. PBS also commissioned a study from the bipartisan polling firms of Hart Research and American Viewpoint, released last week before the scandal broke, whose findings say that 69 percent of Americans oppose eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting. The study also suggests that Americans rank public broadcasting behind only military spending as the government program that provides the best bang for the buck.

But if PBS and NPR programming is so beloved, and if it's mostly paid for by private money, why does it need any government funding at all? Why can't it support itself strictly in the marketplace?

The answer, I suppose, is that much of the programming, while well-liked, isn't the sort of thing the marketplace values. This was certainly true 44 years ago, when the government launched the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and when there were only three other networks as alternatives. But even today, much of what PBS and NPR do isn't duplicated elsewhere, not even on cable. The fine arts programming, the long-form documentaries, the investigative journalism, the in-depth foreign reporting and (especially on NPR) the local journalism - none of these are things that national cable and broadcast networks can be counted on to provide. Quality educational programming for kids can be found on cable, but only with many commercial interruptions; PBS is the only children's TV outlet that doesn't also see kids as a target market to be exploited several times per half-hour.

PBS logoI addressed in greater depth these points about the uniqueness of PBS programming in an article I wrote three years ago, at the time of another annual assault on public broadcasting funding. While I still believe that public broadcasting fills the same gaps left by the programming on network TV, cable and national commercial radio, I'm less certain that public funding doesn't imply some degree of compromise. Any time programmers are dependent on politicians for any part of their funding, there's always the risk that they'll water down programming to suit the agenda of those in power, even without being directly pressured to do so. (A recent example: last fall's censoring of a long Tina Fey joke at Sarah Palin's expense during a PBS special that aired the same week that Tea Party Republicans swept to electoral victory in the House.) But having all-commercial patronage doesn't make programming any less susceptible to bias and spin; it's just a question of whether you want to be spun in favor of the agenda of corporations or that of elected representatives.

If the Hart Research/American Viewpoint study is correct, most people don't mind paying for the latter type of spin, and they did not vote for their congressmen hoping that the House would kill programming they enjoy in order to save them $1.35. If PBS and NPR can argue that their programming is a public good because voters say it is, isn't that enough of an argument to keep funding it, and to not have to re-fight the same battle year after year?

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

Should the government defund public broadcasting?
Yes101 (47.9%)
No110 (52.1%)

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Missing_Alaska

"The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the decision-making body behind NPR and PBS, has been overseen for several years now by Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee." - above article.

She was head of the Republican National Committee from 1997 - 2001 and head of CPB since 2005. The argument that the Corporation of Public Broadcasting is left leaning or liberal has been a fallacy for years. The fact that news can be given without bias makes all right wing conservatives think it's liberal. If it doesn't agree with them it's liberal.

Find me another channel that provides educational programming to children, in depth news analysis, and nightly cultural programming. Anyone who thinks the News Hour is bias has never watched it and probably thinks Hannity is a news anchor and not a commentator.

If funding of CPB goes away then so do most of the great programming and rural support that it provides. As a longtime former Alaskan the local PBS channel is the only channel that provides a nightly weather report for pilots. This is a state where rural airlines and private planes are the only way to get supplies to villages. Losing funding means losing that service. For $1.35 cents per person I think that a valuable service that I gladly pay.

March 12 2011 at 12:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ryan

I love NPR and PBS. But if the government doesn't have the money, it shouldn't be funding them.

What I hate however, is that politicians only look at what they don't like to cut. If you are going to cut, you need to cut everything. For instance, we spent around $250 million a year on Military bands (Here is the NPR article... http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2010/09/29/130212353/military-marching-bands ) How can you say, we can't afford to support Click and Clack, but we need to support our marine tuba players?

March 11 2011 at 5:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Arclight

Quote of the day

If liberals want to understand how conservatives feel about NPR, they should ask themselves this: How would I feel if I knew that every time I paid my taxes, a tiny little bit of it was going to Rush Limbaugh?

March 11 2011 at 2:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
girlwmanywords

What if you only have a tv box? No cable, etc? Then you have what, four channels. And that includes PBS. So maybe Sesame Street makes the money for their show, but if it isn't on PBS, how are all the little kids who need it going to see it? Because are the other big networks going to let it air on Saturdays? Have you seen their lineup? News! For the most part.

So if PBS sinks, wherein do the kids go? The ones who don't have access to more educational television or computers either....further and further behind on the wheel of progress thats where.

So I hope that the big picture will in the end be about good programming. Because I would like to see us, as Americans, decide that we do want our children to learn and be more.

Not to just those with money, who always have a better leg up.

March 11 2011 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
VectorVictor99

"If you don't think NPR, along with the NYT, or the LAT, or the AJC, or the WaPo, or CBS News, or ABC News, or NBC News, or fill-in-the-blank all have a liberal bias, then you're completely in denial, not to bright, or just such a died-in-the-wool-liberal yourself that you don't care to see the bias anyway."

And this is why we can't have nice things, people.

March 11 2011 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
UGABugKiller

If you don't think NPR, along with the NYT, or the LAT, or the AJC, or the WaPo, or CBS News, or ABC News, or NBC News, or fill-in-the-blank all have a liberal bias, then you're completely in denial, not to bright, or just such a died-in-the-wool-liberal yourself that you don't care to see the bias anyway.

Schiller said these things in the company of another NPR employee as well as to the people posing as Muslims. The other NPR employee did NOT say a word against what Schiller said, didn't apologize for him, didn't correct him, didn't point out how ignorant his statements were.

Which means beliefs such as those that Schiller espoused are probably not only held by the majority of NPR staff, but they are frequently spoken out-loud in NPR offices.

Yes, Fox News is biased to the right, but you know WHY they're so popular, even with people who lean towards the center more than they do left or right?

Because they're largely the ONLY source of television or print media who are.

So please, don't be ignorant or naive or just dumb in claiming NPR isn't biased to the left. Of course they are. And because they are biased, no, they do not deserve federal funding.

If NPR were to change, from an institutional standpoint, and actually become unbiased, they would deserve federal funding.

And Kristie is right, Sesame Street makes so much money in merchandizing, they don't need the 12% of their budget that comes from the government.

March 11 2011 at 10:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to UGABugKiller's comment
Brett Alan

You say that if we don't acknowledge the "liberal bias" of the media, we're in denial. And then the sum total of your evidence for this is the statements of one NPR official who had nothing whatsoever to do with news coverage.

The fact is that the media made Monica Lewinsky a household name but never gave much coverage to George W. Bush's scandals; gave saturation coverage to Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers while ignoring unsavory characters associated with McCain and Palin (including the fact that Palin had ties to an organization that wanted to secede from the United States); devoted considerable airtime to such absurd notions as :"death panels" and the idea that Obama's speech to schoolchildren amounted to indoctrination; drove Howard Dean, arguably the most liberal candidate ever to have a serious chance or winning the presidency, out of the race over an overenthusiastic scream; gave far more coverage to the prostitution scandal involving Eliot Spitzer than to, say, the one involving David Vitter; accepted Bush's rationale for the Iraq invasion at face value with no real critical examination for years; and, of course, declared Bush the winner of the presidency--on the say-so of his cousin--at a time when that was far from clear.

In short, there is absolutely no rational doubt that the media has a pro-conservative bias. Moreover, even if you are in denial about my argument, the fact remains that every objective study ever done of NPR supports the idea that they do not have a liberal bias--see, for example, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1180.

The media has a pro-conservative bias. That is simply fact.

March 12 2011 at 11:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cutsomethingelse

I am looking for 1 example of liberal bias from NPR or other public media. I keep posting on various sights and no one seems to be responding. I am beginning to wonder if these people have actually ever listened to NPR or if they simply parrot the wit and wisdom of the pundits of FOX "News".
P.S. Please don't waste my time or yours by telling me about the James O'Keefe sting on Ron Schiller. It is widely accepted that the footage was edited to portray NPR in a less than appealing light. Glen Beck's conservative news site The Blaze concurs. There were comments made that were offensive but they were made by one man not the entire news agency. This is not a case where views and opinions are portrayed as investigative journalism. Watch the first minute of Megyn Kelly's "reporting" and count the number of times you hear "in your opinion", "in my view", "so you think", "it is my belief", etc. These are no news phrases.

March 27 2011 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Diane

Kristie, PBS doesn't receive anything from Sesame Street Workshop's video and toy sales.

March 11 2011 at 10:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Diane's comment
Kristie

Why not?

March 11 2011 at 11:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kristie

How much do Elmo, Thomas, and Barney make in video and toy sales? Just 1/10 of 1% of that should keep them going for 10 years!

March 11 2011 at 9:56 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Richard Hartman

You can call it $1.35 per American citizen, I call it the total tax burden of 14,000 families.

March 11 2011 at 9:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
VectorVictor99

It appears I'm in before the derp, thankfully.

As the article mentioned, it's $1.35/person annually. Political coverage aside, the amount of educational programming on the channel far exceeds that of any other channel, including the so-called educational cable channels that have abandoned their core programming and switched to "reality" programming in a blatant cash grab.

Sad that certain groups in Washington are willing to throw out the educational baby with the political bathwater. I expect higher levels of critical thinking from my elected officials.

March 11 2011 at 9:03 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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