Last spring, in an appeal to his arch-conservative base, Donald Trump pledged to eliminate funding for PBS and NPR, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Trump certainly wasn’t the first president to do so. These agencies have been favorite targets of conservatives since the Reagan Administration. Efforts to eliminate the agencies have repeatedly failed. But Trump’s pledge raised concerns among supporters of national funding for public broadcasting and the arts for obvious reasons: He is unlike any president we’ve had in modern times. He gives new meaning to the term “bully pulpit” because he is a bully.
The good news, as of press time, is that Congress ignored Trump’s wishes on this issue. The allocation for public broadcasting will be cut only slightly.
“We got great bipartisan support,” said Bert Schmidt, president of WHRO, our local public-broadcasting station.
As evidence, he sent me a note issued by the House Appropriations Committee, which stated that the Committee “values the contributions of public television and radio stations in serving the needs of their local communities. National organizations should continue to invest in high quality, national, diverse programming to be made available to locally-owned and operated stations.”
While the issue appears to have been resolved for the upcoming fiscal year, however, we can be certain that it will rise again. Conservatives will continue to bash PBS and NPR, with one or more of their favorite arguments—and will try again to zero it out in coming years.
The first argument is that we shouldn’t be spending money on “non-essential” services at a time when the nation can’t balance its budget. This argument, however, falls flat. The current allocation for public broadcasting is about $445 million. That’s .01 percent of the federal budget—barely a drop in the bucket. Proposals to eliminate funding for the agencies, in other words, have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility.
Some critics of public broadcasting acknowledge this and argue instead that it is a matter of principle. Consider this statement by Logan Albright, for example, a contributor to ConservativeNews.com:
“State-funded media suffer from one glaring, common problem,” Albright wrote in an article published in March. “Someone—a central authority—gets to decide what kind of content is appropriate for the public, and what isn’t. As taxpayers, we cannot withhold our money if we object (or, are indifferent) to what we see—we have to pay for it regardless.
“In most countries, this is called propaganda; the populace is fed what the government wants them to see. While public broadcasting in America is generally more benign than the term “propaganda” implies—focusing mainly on classical music and educational programming rather than fictional glorifications of Dear Leader—national media are nevertheless contrary to the American principles of a free press.”
There are several flaws in this argument.
For one thing, state-funded media do not suffer from one common problem. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is widely regarded as a first-rate source of independent journalism. Yes, at times it has been criticized. During the Thatcher years, conservatives complained that the BBC was biased against the government. Conservatives in this country regularly lodge the same complaint about PBS and NPR news programs. If that were true, then it would entirely obliterate Albright’s argument that public broadcasting is akin to government-propaganda in totalitarian states.
The thing is, it’s not true. I defy anyone to listen to NPR for a day and provide examples of “liberal” bias. Unlike FOX News—which offers nothing but right-wing propaganda—NPR and the “PBS NewsHour” actually deserve the label “fair and balanced.” The NPR program “Left, Right and Center” is a prime example. Conservative voices are given prominent platforms. The only difference between that show and its counterparts on commercial broadcasting is that the panelists on the former don’t scream at each other.
Another important point is that our local public station, WHRO, offers far more than television and radio programs for the general public. It is owned by 19 local school divisions, and the station provides a variety of invaluable educational services to schools—services that actually save taxpayers money.
Those services, however, are largely invisible to the general public. The programs offered by PBS and NPR remain the core of these institutions’ identities. And for good reason: They are islands of sanity and enlightenment in media landscape dominated by programming designed to appeal to the very worst instincts of humanity.
Take CNN, for example. Although it is more balanced than FOX, it is scarcely better. The emphasis in its endless panel “discussions” is on combativeness rather than substance.
The conservative argument that we should let the “free market” dictate programming falls apart. It is the job of the federal and state governments to step in when the “free market” fails to deliver. There has long been a national consensus, for example, that we cannot leave public education to the private sector—arch-conservative arguments to the contrary, notwithstanding.
Public broadcasting is a form of public education for adults as well as children. It attempts, at least, to elevate the national discourse, whether through national programs like “The Jefferson Hour”—a thoughtful and informative program focusing on the ideas of Thomas Jefferson—or our locally produced “HearSay with Cathy Lewis.”
In spite of all these arguments that public broadcasting is invaluable, many conservatives will continue to attack. Some, like Trump, will do so cynically. I don’t believe that Trump objects to funding for public broadcasting (or anything else, for that matter) on principle. He is an opportunist who knows how to push the buttons of his devoted base. I’m sure that many rank and file conservatives, by contrast, actually believe that public broadcasting is guilty of “liberal bias”—and that government funding for it is un-American.
To the latter group I would say this: Watch and listen. And while you’re at it, do some research to learn a little more about our local station—WHRO. If you do so, I think you’ll realize that the stereotypes which conservative leaders like to spread do not at all reflect the reality of public broadcasting. It offers a wide variety of refreshingly intelligent viewpoints on the politics and culture of our times. And in this day and age, that is an essential service indeed.