Criticism of federal subsidies for public broadcasting is misguided

In his June 8 op-ed, “Public Broadcasting Can Survive, and Even Improve, Without Subsidies,” Howard Husock advances a premise so untethered from reality and based on supporting arguments so factually flawed, one would think that they came from someone who had no knowledge whatsoever of public television, public radio, and the roles of the Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission. Yet, Mr. Husock is actually a fellow member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s (CPB) board of directors and vice president of research and publications at the esteemed Manhattan Institute.

First and foremost, Mr. Husock asserts that the end of federal support for public media will not mean the end of public media. This notion has been oft addressed and contradicted, most recently by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as well as in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s report to Congress on alternative sources of funding for public broadcasting stations. Supported by the research efforts of Booz & Company, this report found not only that there are insufficient alternative sources of funding to replace the federal appropriation, but that “ending federal funding for public broadcasting would severely diminish, if not destroy, public broadcasting service in the United States.” Without public funding, public media will cease to be public.

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In support of his premise, Mr. Husock suggests national and local programming should depend on private funds, and local stations should keep the money they raise to support local journalism. In doing so, he does not recognize that private funding is already critical to the funding equation for both national and local programming, and that stations may and usually do retain the funds they raised locally. In making this statement, he appears not even to understand the interconnected nature of the public media system.

 

In short, if you take away federal funding for a full schedule of high-quality national programs, such as children’s educational content, NOVA, Nature, FRONTLINE, and American Experience, you take away critically necessary programming that Americans enjoy, and with it the reason they privately support their local stations. As a result, public broadcasting stations will be unable to raise enough funds to create viable local programming or local journalism operations – on the need for which we agree with Mr. Husock. 

He also argues that it would be OK to end federal funding for public media because federal funding could come from other agencies, such as the Department of Education. Setting aside the bizarre nature of this argument, it ignores the reality of what the Department of Education does and is capable of doing, as evidenced by the Department of Education’s long-standing engagement with public media to research and produce children’s educational content (as recently reaffirmed by Congress through the Every Student Succeeds Act). Mr. Husock would set aside this unique public-private partnership for which federal funds are leveraged six times in favor of creating a new bureaucracy within the Department of Education to perform tasks beyond its mission.

By using half-truths and flawed facts to advance his arguments, Mr. Husock shows disdain for the fundamental standards and ethics that true journalists honor. This makes us wonder whether his real goal is to cripple public media because he thinks its programming reflects “strong political points of view” that he does not share. Is he watching the 24/7 stream of opinionated coverage on today’s cable news outlets? Is he aware that public broadcasting must be “objective and balanced” under its enabling statute?

Finally, after nearly four years of serving on the CPB Board, Mr. Husock makes a surprising number of other errors, such as how much money PBS receives from the federal appropriation; the small number of public television licensees that will actually receive revenue from the spectrum auction (26 out of a total of 167); that most major content producing stations will not benefit from spectrum auction proceeds; and even that Congress did not mandate that proceeds from the spectrum auction be spent in any particular way.

How sad that our colleague failed to research the facts on which he relied, and therefore failed in his duty of care as a member of our board.

Lori Gilbert is chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s board of directors. Bruce Ramer serves as the board’s vice chair.


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