Public Broadcasting Unfairly Under Attack

Nicholas Quah

Nicholas Quah

Isabel Owens, Opinion and Copy Editor

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With the release of his proposed 2018 budget on March 16, Trump announced that he plans to eliminate funding not only for 14 large departments but for “nearly 20 smaller independent agencies,” according to The New York Times, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

CPB is an “umbrella agency” involved with PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and NPR (National Public Radio), according to Todd VanDerWerff for Vox. Most of CPB’s money goes toward “keeping rural PBS and NPR stations alive,” wrote VanDerWerff, but CPB is not the sole or even primary financial provider for these companies.

This means that funding cuts to CPB will likely fail to eliminate PBS and NPR. However, they will take a toll. CPB said in a statement that “stripping funding for CPB would devastate local stations in rural areas, which rely on the federal government for as much as 80 percent to 100 percent of their budget,” according to Bloomberg’s Terrence Dopp.

Of all of Trump’s proposed cuts, the proposal to eliminate CPB funding is “perhaps the most poorly understood,” VanDerWerff wrote. Many people associate PBS with Sesame Street and NPR with liberal propaganda, failing to understand the multitude of services provided by these programs and the importance of public broadcasting as a whole.

According to Fortune’s Matthew Ingram, Dan Gainor (vice president of the right-wing Media Research Center) said on Twitter that “there simply is no legitimate reason for government to fund left-wing media.”

Ingram added that the Republican Study Committee, comprised of 172 Republican state representatives, argued that “a free society should not have government-supported media outlets, especially ones that so often convey political news and opinion. There is no shortage of media outlets and news services available to consumers.”

But there is a shortage of free media available to consumers. While researching for this very opinion article, I was notified by The Boston Globe that I had met my monthly article limit on their website. “We hope you’ve enjoyed your 5 free articles,” a pop-up told me. “Continue reading by subscribing to Globe.com for just 99 cents.”

When I know I can only click on 5 articles a month for certain news websites, I’m going to reconsider before clicking on anything. Although I understand that journalism can’t be free and that news agencies like The Boston Globe are sorely underfunded already, having to pay even a small amount of money for print newspapers or online access does impact how people choose to educate themselves. This is why the existence of free public broadcasting, specifically in rural areas, is so important – PBS CEO Paula Kerger told Vox‘s VanDerWerff that over-the-air broadcast, rather than cable TV or satellite, is how “a significant part” of PBS’ audience receives content.

Entirely government-funded media has become an obvious impossibility under Trump’s presidency. 

But to the Republican Study Committee’s statement that a “free society should not have government- supported media,” I disagree. Government-funded broadcasting in itself is not a threat to democracy. Government funding is only dangerous when the government actually controls the media produced, either by firing out-of-line journalists or, in this case, threatening to withdraw financial support. This wasn’t the case with CPB and the entities it supports until now.

Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, in an article titled “Five Reasons Trump is Right to Cut NPR, PBS,” listed the 3rd reason as “NPR is biased in favor of liberals and against conservatives.” He wrote, “The network also takes aim at conservative rivals: last week, for example, it accused Breitbart News, falsely, of producing ‘fake news.’”

What proponents of this aspect of Trump’s budget plan need to understand is that CPB doesn’t just promote left-wing media. Those most impacted by cuts to public broadcasting, according to NBC News’ Mary Emily O’Hara, would be “children and teachers.”

A statement issued by PBS on March 16, according to O’Hara, read that “public television is ‘America’s largest classroom,’ with 68 percent of all kids aged 2-8 watching and learning from shows like Sesame Street, Thomas and Friends, Arthur, and others.”

PBS also operates web resources, including PBS Learning Media, which provides lesson plans, quiz templates, and other digital classroom resources. PBS Learning Media is “used by over 1 million educators to teach 40 million children and teens in K-12 classrooms,” O’Hara wrote.

PBS Kids played a prominent role in my early education as my only source of TV entertainment, because my parents didn’t want to pay for cable. Without free access to PBS Kids, I would’ve never been able to watch TV at all. This might not sound like much of a tragedy, but children’s TV can be vitally important, if not for me, for kids in less affluent communities. For example, Word Girl, one of my childhood favorites, features a heroine who fights crime by spelling words. While most kids in Lamorinda can probably learn vocabulary without a TV show, many underestimate the educational impact that these cartoons can have in areas where academic resources are less readily available to young kids.

CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison said in a statement, according to Ted Johnson for Variety, that elimination of federal support would “destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions.”

Proponents of Trump’s plan argue that it is unfair to expect the average American to pay taxes to fund CPB. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, said to MSNBC on March 16 that the government cannot  “ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs.” He added, “We can ask them to pay for defense and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

However, public media costs “approximately $1.35 per citizen per year,” Harrison said in her statement, according to NPR’s Brian Naylor. That’s a tiny price to pay for the net benefit, especially considering how widespread the impact of public broadcasting is.

I don’t expect Trump to care about CPB’s role in “early childhood education” and “promoting civil discussions,” in Harrison’s words, considering the budget cuts he has proposed to the Department of Education and others. But it seems like this cut to public broadcasting is flying somewhat under the radar. The average American, specially the average Trump fan, will too readily support this proposed cut before understanding what CPB really does. I hardly knew anything about public media myself until I started researching for this article.

The majority of right-wing support for the cut seems to come from an idea that the government has no obligation to support left-wing media, which is an idea that I agree with. But that idea has little relevance to whether or not the government has an obligation to support CPB.

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