Keep Big Bird, ditch the news: A path forward for PBS with budget cuts
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As was the case a half-dozen years ago, PBS and NPR are again the subject of a contentious debate about their taxpayer funding , this time courtesy of President Trump. The problem with that debate, then and now, is that like so many policy disputes, the arguments employed oversimplify the facts and ignore the obvious. I wrote about this matter in 2011 in a piece published in the now-defunct app called The Daily. What follows is an update of that piece.

For years, Republicans and conservatives have accused  NPR and PBS of ideological and political bias Things came to a head in 2010 when NPR fired Juan Williams as a commentator for allegedly making anti-Muslim remarks, and NPR successfully solicited funding for local reporting from a foundation controlled by the uber liberal George Soros.

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This perception of bias would be noteworthy enough even if these broadcasters were not financially supported by taxpayers, conditioned on explicit statutory language requiring objectivity and balance. Since, however, they are, the ubiquity and durability of this perception becomes very nearly miraculous. Surely it’s not easy to so thoroughly offend one of the two major parties that, in the House vote in 2011, virtually every Republican member voted to defund NPR, even as all the Democrats voted against the measure.

 

In any case, the House vote definitively answered the question, as though there were any doubt, about the widespread perception of political bias in public broadcasting’s news programs. Defenders of that programming might argue that they don’t mean to be biased, or that “nobody’s perfect,” or that they’ll try to do better, but if the question is whether they are perceived to be biased, the unavoidable answer can be found in the party-line vote in the House that year.

This said, defenders of public broadcasting are on firmer ground when they extol the virtues of the cultural and educational programming found on NPR and PBS. Indeed, even in our multi-channel and many-app media and communications environment today, public broadcasting produces some of the best things around.  Even with the rise of educational and cultural programming on cable channels like AMC and Discovery, National Geographic and the History Channel, the fact is that public TV continues to fill a cultural and educational gap not yet closed by commercial TV.

At  the federal level, the growing national debt is, of course, a matter of genuine gravity, and it is true that every government program on the cutting block is sure to argue that theirs is too unique, and uniquely valuable, to be eliminated.

Still, the math in question re the taxpayers’ bill for financial support of public broadcasting , whether compared with the national  debt or even just the federal  deficit, is not just small potatoes, it’s barely a French fry.

Indeed, the amount in question is so small one could argue that to give any politician credit for his or her vote to eliminate CPB funding as a deficit reduction triumph just allows an easy way around having to deal with the far more significant cuts that need to be made elsewhere.

Perhaps, as this matter heads to Congress, a compromise, molded along the contours of both popular and informed opinion, might be proposed.

Perhaps Congress would consider legislation that eliminates government support of public broadcasting’s news and public affairs programming, but preserves its support for cultural and educational programs. There would, of course, be complications in this owing to the way that funds are granted by CPB not just to the networks but to the stations and then to the networks,  but that’s a matter for the bureaucrats and number crunchers to work out.

The advantage of such an approach would be several-fold. It would free taxpayers from having to provide financial support for news programming that many of them feel is biased against their political beliefs; it would greatly diminish the congressional acrimony over public broadcasting; and it would liberate PBS and NPR to find ways of gaining, from the private sector, funding equal to the shortfall.

Though far from perfect, compared to the present impasse it would be a win-win. Or as Big Bird might put it, “Sesame Street is brought to you today by the letter W.”

Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes a strong First Amendment, sound communications policy, and excellence in journalism. The opinions expressed are his alone.


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