The federal Off switch

I was asked by a reader if I planned on opining on the proposed federal budget cuts to public broadcasting, where I can occasionally be found on Friday mornings, as you know. (For which I receive nothing more than attention, and some of it negative, which is why I stopped reading Wisconsin Public Radio Facebook posts while I’m on the air.)

Now that someone brought it up, at the risk of biting the publicity hand that feeds my need for self-promotion, I bring up Ryan Girudsky:

President Donald Trump unveiled his budget on Thursday, and is planning on making massive budget cuts to domestic programs. Programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which fund NPR and PBS will be on the chopping block. Rest assured, Big Bird and Elmo will survive without the government.

While liberals are comparing Trump’s budget to a dystopia and giving children nightmares that their favorite puppets will soon be no more, Sesame Street and most PBS shows will be fine.

Mitt Romney threatened to cut off funds to PBS if he were to win the presidential election in 2012. Sherrie Westin, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Sesame Workshop, told CNN that the cut in funding would not “kill Big Bird.”

“Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS. So, we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship,” Westin said. “So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird – that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.”
Only 31 percent of Sesame Street funding comes from a mixture of corporate, government, and foundational support. Nearly 70 percent comes from licensing, distribution fees, and royalties.

Sesame Street has so much potential to be even more profitable now that HBO bought the right to air the show for five years in 2015. PBS gets to air the new episode after a nine-month exclusivity period for HBO.

Furthermore, PBS and NPR will also be fine because they aren’t that reliant on the CPB either. According to Pro Publica, only 15 percent of PBS’s funding are CPB-issued grants, while only two percent of NPR’s funding comes from the government agency.

Perhaps all the celebrities who love to bask in the glow of their own greatness at award shows can open up their pockets and give additionally to the very small amount cut from PBS’ budget.

Kind of like the feast of donations Meals on Wheels programs have received after the proposed budget cut that isn’t a Meals on Wheels budget cut at all. (Community Development Block Grants fund Meals on Wheels programs in some areas, none of which receive more than a single digit percentage of their funding from CDBGs.)

A similar budget cut happened in Wisconsin during the 2015–17 budget, though the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported at the time:

Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee on Tuesday cut funding for public broadcasting and programs to mitigate farm runoff, but not as deeply as GOP Gov. Scott Walker wanted. …

Walker, who is in Israel this week as he prepares for a likely run for president, recommended cutting nearly $5 million over two years from the state Educational Communications Board, which runs Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. The board also operates the system that is used for Amber Alerts and other emergency alerts.

Republicans on the committee voted to restore $2.6 million of the funding, leaving the board with a $2.3 million reduction.

Democrats invoked “Sesame Street” to argue for fully funding the board, with Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) saying the cuts were proposed by “Gov. Walker the Grouch.”

Public broadcasting is “the one consistent thing we get from one end of the state to the other,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). “It’s public. It’s ours. We as Wisconsinites own it and we should be supporting it.”

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the committee, argued the cuts would not affect public broadcasting’s programming but some staff would be trimmed.

Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) said restoring some of the funding was important because public radio provides a service by letting its audience “listen to people from across the state.” But he said some cuts were warranted because public broadcasting in Wisconsin receives more taxpayer support than similar systems in other states.

Beyond the dollar figures involved, Logan Albright adds:

Budget hawks will be quick to point out that $445 million is but a fraction of a drop in the proverbial bucket of government spending, and it’s true. But no one is claiming that cutting public broadcasting will balance the budget. The question we should be asking is, “Why are we funding it in the first place?”

State-funded media suffer from one glaring, common problem: 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.

But what will happen to all that beloved programming on PBS and NPR if the federal government doesn’t pay for it? What about “Sesame Street”? What about “A Prairie Home Companion”? Should we just let these things wither on the vine? There are two responses to these concerns.

The first is that, if something really is popular, it will survive just fine without government having to force people to fund it.

“Sesame Street” is widely watched. It is certain that advertisers would be willing to sponsor it. Or, if you are among those who feel some moral objection to advertising in children’s shows, is there any reason to believe that donations couldn’t sustain the program? PBS and NPR already receive a majority of their funding from voluntary donations anyway — they are not suddenly going to disappear without the federal government as a backstop.

The second answer to the above question is simply “Yes,” things that no one is willing to pay for should be allowed to end.

There is no such thing as objective value in a television show or a radio program. The only value they have is in the subjective opinions of the viewers and listeners. If you have to use the force of taxation to keep a show running, it means that you are subsidizing the preferences of a few at the expense of everyone else.

For those who make the argument that we need public broadcasting to provide culture for the nation’s poor (who otherwise could not afford it), I would argue that this smacks of arrogance and elitism. The programmers at NPR may like classical music and cool jazz, but what evidence do they have that single mothers working three jobs appreciate these highly specific forms of “culture”?

Claiming that “the poor” need to listen to a particular type of music in order to better themselves is not based on anything but a false sense of superiority and a desire to impose one person’s tastes on others.

The government’s funding of broadcasting is as much an affront to the First Amendment as it would be if Donald Trump announced today that the federal government is going to dump $445 million into Fox News. (Someone before me came up with that observation, though I cannot find the source.) There is no guarantee of editorial independence from the government funders by the management of public TV or radio as long as there is government funding.

The identities of those in charge don’t matter. The heads of PBS and NPR can swear up and down that their news coverage is and will be unbiased, and they can be presumed to be sincere. That doesn’t prevent a future head of PBS from mandating news coverage to adhere to his or her own political views. That also doesn’t prevent a president from putting pressure on NPR to cover things as the president wants covered.

Jim Epstein adds:

If the Trump Administration gets its way in ending federal funding for public broadcasting (see the budget proposal …), it wouldn’t spell the end of NPR, PBS, or the radio and television programs that many Americans cherish. The biggest impact would be on rural stations that rely on government dollars for a large share of their operating budgets. Several reporters have noted that these rural stations “serve” communities that skew heavily Republican, claiming irony. “[D]efunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” the Washington Post’s Callum Borchers writes, “would mean hurting the local TV and radio stations that a whole lot of Republican voters watch and listen to.”

We don’t actually know how many Republican voters (or anyone for that matter) watch and listen to NPR or PBS in these rural communities because the networks keep that information private. If saving the rural stations is the main reason to maintain federal funding, don’t taxpayers have a right to see multi-year ratings data? In a press release responding to the budget cuts, PBS merely cites its old talking point that public broadcasting costs each citizen just $1.35 per year. Just because something’s comparatively cheap doesn’t make it worth buying.

The notion of a television station “serving” a community is outdated. You don’t hear Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu boasting that they “serve” one area of the country or another. As I argued in a recent video, the mean reason to end federal funding to these stations is that the media landscape looks nothing like it did in 1967, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act.

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