Monday, March 7, 2011

Public Broadcasting: Boon or Burden?

Regarding the latest Congressional assault on NPR and PBS, In These Times blogger Megan Tady writes,

"Congressional attacks on public media seem to come as regularly as NPR fundraising drives. Every year, as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) pleas for federal funding, some members of Congress denounce public media altogether, while others quietly vote to shave off another sliver of subsidies, rather than eliminate all funding. In the end, the CPB limps away still intact, but wounded".

As I write, the House has voted to defund CPB and the Senate is deliberating.

Given PBS's never-ending fiscal worries, one might well speculate that they should never have abandoned their original appellation, National Educational Television (NET), the banner under which they marched from 1954 to 1970. No doubt they wanted at the time to differentiate themselves from etv (educational television), a broadcast and closed-circuit platform that offered classroom-format telecourses on academic subjects to early risers before such programming was subsumed into NET and, subsequently, into PBS.

I suggest that any entity chasing government funding will undoubtedly find politicians more favorably disposed toward the term educational (as in NET) than toward the descriptive adjective public (as in PBS and CPB), a loaded word carrying socialistic connotations to conservatives already agitated over the perceived leftist slant of PBS and NPR. To briefly address that particular mind-set, I refer you to a UCLA/U. of Missouri study that found that the top-rated NPR news program, Morning Edition, is seen by the citizenry as more liberal than the average Republican and more conservative than the average Liberal. They must be doing something right.

Furthermore, in a Harris poll conducted in 2005, NPR was voted the most trusted news source in the U.S., while Roper polls commissioned by PBS have consistently placed that service as America's most trusted national institution.

Education is a topic much beloved by Congress. The last major federal education bill, No Child Left Behind, sailed through both chambers on roll call votes of 384-45 in the House and 91-8 in the Senate. An informed electorate has been a touchstone of our republic since the days of the Founding Fathers, and no matter your political ideology, the essential mission of educational television is, incontrovertibly, education. Studies conducted by the polling firm Knowledge Networks and the U. of Maryland found that "those who get their news and information from public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) are better informed than those whose information comes from other media outlets. In one study, NPR and PBS audiences had a more accurate understanding of the events in Iraq versus all audiences [emphasis mine] for cable and broadcast TV networks and the print media." While this finding may be more an example of reinforcement than of cause and effect, it seems a no-brainer to conclude that regular exposure to educational media doesn't make us any dumber and may even make us a bit smarter; a consequence certainly worth the $1.50 per capita that Congress is being asked to grant to CPB.

Even if the Senate and the White House are able to override the House's defunding of CPB, leaving it alive to fight another day, public broadcasting should nevertheless attempt to retrofit its mantle as an educational institution and consider pursuing some appropriate alternative form of supplementary underwriting. The media reform group Free Press suggests a Public Trust to be funded either by spectrum use fees, UHF auction fees or a nominal tax on consumer electronics. This would of course take years to accomplish, so CPB will have to continue dependent upon federal help to close the gap in the interim, a dependency that this Congress will hopefully recognize as a legitimate social benefit and loosen the purse strings accordingly. I would urge readers to contact their Senators to that end.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that, after a career in commercial network television, I was briefly employed by WNET/13 in New York, and one of my daughters currently works for WGBH in Boston.


  1. Oh,oh, oh, I've got that feeling in the pit of the stomach when the plane is in free fall about you aren't going to be able to stop the disaster that's about to happen. We vote as best we can but the yahoos vote too and the landing is going to hurt. Thanks for a good post!

  2. Tx yr comment. I'm actually somewhat optimistic that the Senate will again do the right thing, 'tho they'll probably have to compromise on the amount.