GOP, lay off NPR, PBS

It must be spring, because Republicans are frolicking through their annual ritual of trying to abolish funding for public broadcasting — led this time by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), playing the role of Oscar the Grouch. 

What a silly exercise. Pulling the plug on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) won’t save that much money: $420 million out of a total $3.83 trillion federal budget. And NPR gets only 1 to 3 percent of its budget from CPB.

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If Republicans were really serious about tackling the deficit, they’d forget their pet peeves, like NPR, and go after some of the really big items in the budget. Like the massive waste in the Pentagon, excess federal properties, overlapping and duplicative federal agencies and America’s anachronistic nuclear-weapons program.

Besides, the CPB, through both PBS and NPR, provides excellent programming Americans can’t find anywhere else. Yes, there’s strong broadcasting from the left on MSNBC and progressive radio stations. There are plenty of voices from the right on Fox News and right-wing talk radio. But in the midst of that political cacophony, it’s good to have some calmer, more balanced reporting right down the middle, which is what NPR and PBS provide.

Nobody covers the Supreme Court better than Nina Totenberg. Nobody does a better interview than Robert Siegel. No radio program gets more laughs than “Car Talk.” And on PBS, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff are first-class news anchors. Then there’s “Frontline,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “The American Experience,” Tavis Smiley and, of course, “Sesame Street.”

Without them, we would be a poorer, less informed nation — which even many conservatives believe. In fact, when it comes to NPR, Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who brag about “listening to the American people” — don’t seem to be listening to their fellow conservatives.

“I think NPR tries harder to be fair than just about any other media source,” conservative talk show host Michael Medved told Media Matters. “It doesn’t mean they succeed. They do give evidence of trying.” Former Newt Gingrich press secretary Tony Blankley adds that NPR has always given him plenty of access and treated him fairly. Even several Tea Party activists say they received better coverage from NPR than the mainstream media. “I think they do a good job. They are conscientious,” volunteers conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds. 

But New York Times reporter David Brooks makes a much more important argument. The value of public broadcasting, he points out, is in helping to create a “common culture” — which, he notes, is essential “if we’re going to assimilate people, if we’re going to be one nation.” Where most commercial programming is designed to drive us apart, public broadcasting brings us together and celebrates our common values. Getting rid of it might be penny-wise, but it would be pound-foolish.

It costs every man, woman and child about $1.35 a year for public broadcasting. I think Big Bird is worth it.

Bill Press is host of the nationally syndicated “Bill Press Show.”