Local radio cuts put jobs and transparency at risk (Rep. Paul Tonko)

The free press is a fundamental building block of democracy. It is the American institution most directly responsible for shining light on the all-too-often veiled motives of our leaders in both the public and private sectors. I think Americans of all stripes – left, right or center - have noted that today’s media giants have drifted a long way from the vigilant watchdogs envisioned by our founding fathers to speak truth to power. In an era where corporate news outlets offer inflammatory rhetoric and a wealth of celebrity gossip, local public broadcasting was established with the explicit mission to reclaim the airwaves – which belong to all Americans – for service of the public good, not the profit motive of executives and advertisers. With a long history of quality journalism and educational entertainment, public broadcasting stations promote local focus and vibrant community dialogue, inspiring civic education, political engagement, and a free exchange of ideas through civil discourse. What could be more important in today’s polarized political climate?

In the wake of the Juan Williams firing that inspired this partisan attack on public radio, Roger Ailes of Fox News called NPR executives Nazis, in an all too common comparison that Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel has said serves sadly to “betray the dead and humiliate the living” by belittling the true horror of the Holocaust. Pundits from the political left wasted no more time in demonizing Williams himself. Meanwhile, the head of the public radio station in my district, WAMC, was on air just hours later fostering local discussion, noting the firing was misguided, and citing the First Amendment held so dear by journalists around the world and the audiences they report to.

This measured response is empowered by the fact that public broadcasting runs on a different financial model than corporate media. Though some have claimed difficulty in assessing the true cost of public broadcasting, I would suggest they take a look closer to home for a dose of clarity. The often painfully small budgets of local stations are funded predominantly by the financial contributions of individual listeners, not massive grants from federal agencies as some have claimed. For example, another station in my district, WMHT, receives three times the funds from local listeners than it does from government support. These funds support local jobs, but moreover they support democracy and our ability to participate in it.

I would ask my colleagues across the aisle to remember that when we talk about taking away what minimal assistance local stations still receive, we are talking about asking their listeners, our constituents, to pick up the tab in what amounts to an added broadcasting fee. The airwaves are public property. They belong to all of us, and we rely on them to engage actively and meaningfully with our government. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.” Local public radio stations in New York and across America have strained in a difficult economy to maintain fiscally responsible budgets that garner the vast majority of their funds from private sources. This kind of efficiency in a public-private partnership must be applauded and encouraged, not penalized.

The attempt to blindly defund a public broadcasting budget that has not been fully examined amounts to little more than a reactionary attempt to inject federal censorship and leftover partisan outrage into one of the last bastions of a truly free press in America. If we are honest about deficit reduction, let us not penalize efficiency, but instead target waste.

Rep. Tonko represents New York’s 21st Congressional District. This is his 2nd term in Congress.