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The relief bill and public broadcasting: A missed opportunity

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The coronavirus has succeeded in accomplishing what years of appeals based on the virtues of “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” have failed to do: increased funding for public broadcasting. The emergency relief bill’s many small provisions championed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) include $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which in turn distributes funds to local public television and radio stations, as well as NPR and PBS.

CPB funding has been stuck the past five years at $445 million annually; thus the relief bill increases its budget this year by 16 percent. Unfortunately, it provides no guarantee that “public media” will do what we need most: fill the vacuum left by the decline of local journalism and inform the communities it serves how the virus is affecting them.

The reasoning behind the legislation, slammed by Republicans such as Ohio’s Jim Jordan as one of Pelosi’s pet liberal projects shoehorned into the bill, is not without merit. Public broadcasters don’t get close to the majority of their funding from Washington; they must rely on local donors (“viewers like you”). As the economy grinds to a halt, it’s reasonable to be concerned that those sorts of donations will dry up. What’s more, the bill specifically cites the need to help “preserve small and rural stations threatened by declines in non-federal revenues.”

But such language masks the fact that this emergency legislation merely helps preserve the public broadcasting status quo — rather than empowering it to take on the mission of providing the local journalism communities desperately need, especially as their local hospitals fill and their local officials need to be held accountable. Nothing in the bill actually provides local stations with additional money that they’ll be able to keep for themselves. Instead, in order to, as the bill puts it, “maintain programming and services,” they will continue to have to pay hefty fees and dues to NPR and PBS for the rights to air nationally-produced programming.

Had Republicans been paying closer attention — rather than just falling back on their time-honored denunciations of “liberal” public broadcasting — they’d have insisted that NPR and PBS provide emergency financial relief to local public radio and television stations.  Providing those stations with additional funding, but at the same time reducing their expenses, would have made it possible for them to provide emergency local journalism, rather than just running national programming. This is the direction public media needs to head in the future anyway, to compensate for the market failure that has emerged with the death of local newspapers.

Of course, as is so often the case, public broadcasting did itself no favors as horse-trading was ongoing. KUOW, the Seattle public radio station, announced it would not air the daily White House news briefings about the coronavirus because of what it called a “pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact-checked in real time.”  

One wishes that public broadcasting, an American institution that has accomplished so much in so many ways, would work harder to earn the trust of all Americans. Were it to do so, Pelosi’s original $300 million request might have passed, and deserved to. But, sadly, the Trump White House — which consistently pushed to zero-out CPB funding until being cornered by Pelosi this time around — is not wrong to believe that public broadcasting does not serve a broad cross-section of the public. NPR, in its appeals to donors, emphasizes that its listeners are high-earning professionals, college graduates and wine drinkers. The Pew Research Center has found that, as one might expect, a majority of listeners are left-of-center politically. 

A broadcast service supported by the government should work to change those sorts of figures, so as to appeal to news consumers across all political affiliations and ranges of income. After all, when a crisis hits, it affects Democrats and Republicans, white-collar workers and manufacturers. The relief bill could have been a first step toward fostering bipartisan, constructive appeal in localities that need specialized information pertinent to their geographic regions. But instead, it will simply reinforce the status quo. 

Howard Husock is a senior fellow and contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute. He served as an Obama-appointed member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s board of directors from 2013-2018 and is an Emmy award-winning public television documentary film producer.

Tags coronavirus stimulus package Corporation for Public Broadcasting COVID-19 Jim Jordan Nancy Pelosi NPR PBS

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