THE BLOG
03/07/2011 11:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turning Down the Radio, Slice by Budgetary Slice

These are frenzied days in Washington DC. They are also particularly dangerous ones for publicly-supported institutions that Republican politicians happen to dislike. With the threat of a complete government shut-down as their ultimate weapon, House Republicans are entering this year's budget round with some very clear targets in mind. High on that list of targets is the $445 million federal subsidy to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The President's 2011 budget proposed to increase that subsidy by a meager $6 million. By contrast, the finance bill passed by the Republican-controlled House in February proposed the entire elimination of the subsidy by 2013. The sums involved are minute, given the size of the federal budget as a whole. They amount to roughly $1.39 per American per year: so removing the entire $445 million from the federal accounts will affect the overall budget arithmetic hardly at all. But for the Republicans, if not for the Democrats, there is more than money at stake here. For Republicans, the budget provides an opportunity, rather than a reason: a cover under which to deal finally and decisively with a target that has long loomed large in conservative demonology. The danger before us therefore is that - in the give and take of this year's torrid budget round, with negotiators caught between a call for a modest increase and one for total elimination - the Administration will give and the Republicans will take, and will take totally.

We need to stop them.

The case against the continuation of the subsidy is both general and specific. The general one, as John Boehner put it in the wake of the Juan Williams' dismissal by NPR, is that in the context of a large federal deficit, sending taxpayer dollars to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is something we can no longer afford. The specific one was and remains that, regardless of the presence or absence of a federal spending deficit, supporting public broadcasting with public money is neither necessary nor legitimate. It is no longer necessary because the media landscape has changed fundamentally in the decades since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created: in 1967 there were just three dominant channels and many Americans were without television, whereas now virtually all Americans have ready access to both television and the internet, and face a multiplicity of broadcasting choices. Privileging one of those broadcasting outlets with a federal subsidy is therefore no longer legitimate, if it ever was. It smacks of elitism - of Washington telling people what they should watch/hear. It directs public money to news organizations with a distinctly liberal bias; and it subsidizes radio and television stations which now possess a collective audience of more than 170 million Americans: an audience large, loyal and wealthy enough to sustain those stations without federal help. "There is little doubt," as the National Taxpayers Union recently put it, "that public broadcasters disseminate useful information and quality programming, but taxpayers simply should not be responsible for funding a private entity that exists in a robust market serving consumers of many preferences and income levels." "When presidents of government-funded broadcasting are making more than the president of the United States," Senator DeMint told Wall Street Journal readers last Friday, "it's time to get the government out of public broadcasting... public broadcasting should go private... the politics will be out of public broadcasting as soon as the government gets out of the business of paying for it."

Put that way, what could be more reasonable than phasing this subsidy out?

Actually, a number of things spring to mind, any one of which would be more reasonable than phasing out the subsidy, things that make much more sense if we are trying to combine deficit reduction with a sensible policy on the strengthening and regulation of the media.

1. If immediate deficit reduction is necessary, and that itself is questionable in the context of an on-going recession with still 1930s-like levels of involuntary unemployment, ending the Bush tax breaks for the rich would seem a more logical place from which to begin. Ending those tax breaks would not only save the federal Treasury some $700 billion over ten years, a sum of money against which a modest subsidy to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting seems paltry indeed. It would also simply return top tax levels to those prevalent at the peak of the last significant U.S. economic boom - the one presided over by Bill Clinton. It would also help to remind us that the tax cuts initiated by George W. Bush precipitated, not the strongest, but the weakest post-war expansion in the American economy: the one with the lowest level of domestic investment and the slowest rate of generalized income growth. The median U.S. family income actually fell during the Bush II years, not that you would know that if all you heard was the Republican call for a simultaneous mixture of tax cuts and spending curbs.

2. And that is all we might hear but for the presence within the U.S. media universe of a strong and vibrant public broadcasting system. The claim about news bias in NPR is itself seriously open to question; but what is clearer still is that the public broadcasting system is far wider than merely NPR. Critics of public broadcasting like to tar the entire network with the NPR brush, forgetting as they do so that in the recent dismissal of Juan Williams by NPR, for example, no other part of the public broadcasting system was consulted prior to the decision being made. The public broadcasting system is not just one station. It is a network of 934 locally owned radio and 368 television stations that together now constitute approximately one-tenth of the total sum of similar outlets currently available to the American media consumer. Seventy percent of the limited funds made available to public broadcasting by the federal subsidy go to public television stations, not to NPR-affiliated radio stations; and those radio stations rely now only for ten percent of their revenues on this federal subsidy. Take that subsidy away, however, and the financial viability of public broadcasting stations in areas of low population density, and low average income, would seriously diminish. Far from the subsidy sustaining some form of elitism, as its critics claim, its main impact is the protection of access to high quality programming by our fellow citizens in the poorest areas of the United States - and indeed the maintenance of access to high quality local and national news for the rest of us, in an industry which otherwise is closing newsrooms and shedding journalists at an alarming rate. The APTS president recently made the point this way:

These local stations enhance the lives of their local communities through educational programming and services in K-12 schools, GED and other lifelong learning services, job training, in-depth coverage of local issues and state legislative proceedings, music and cultural programming, emergency alert and public safety services, and trusted local news and other programming that captures the rich diversity of American life. More than 170 million Americans regularly depend on these services, and they have consistently ranked public broadcasting as the second best use of federal funds, just behind national defense.

3. Perhaps it is because I grew up with the BBC, and took for granted the importance of a public broadcasting system committed by its Charter to "inform, educate and entertain," that the most striking feature of public broadcasting for me is not its supposed political bias - which is way overstated - but its bias in favor of high-quality programming across the whole spectrum of its output. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently argued, an informed citizenry is absolutely vital to a healthy democracy; and public broadcasting plays a critical role in maintaining that health. Critics of the subsidy make the classic right-wing error: they "confuse the public with the market, and equate citizens with consumers." Publics and markets, citizens and consumers, only conflate in democracies in which purchasing power is equally distributed. The contemporary United States is not such a democracy. Instead, and with income distribution as socially and regionally uneven as is currently the case, public broadcasting in the United States has a unique and profoundly democratic role to play. Profit-driven media outlets are under enormous commercial pressure to deliver only programming that can attract large advertising revenues and mass audiences, at the cost of programs privileging minority interests and quality output. Take public broadcasting away, and short-term market imperatives will rule the airways, with serious negative long-term effects on the range and quality of what is regularly available to the American listener and viewer.

4. Nor should the critics of public broadcasting be allowed to get away unchallenged with the assertion that only public broadcasting is subsidized. It is not. Private radio stations receive the free gift of their bandwidth no less than public broadcasting stations do; and private radio and television stations receive huge private subsidies from the conglomerates that now run them. Broadcasting in the United States is no longer a level playing field of small independent media producers. It is big business, and big business-dominated. In the wake of Ronald Reagan's 1987 executive order ending the Federal Communication Commission's "fairness doctrine" - a doctrine to which public broadcasting still adheres - conservative talk radio has exploded in presence and impact, and the ownership of local radio stations has fallen into the hands of a limited number of media conglomerates, of which the largest by far is Clear Channel Communications. It is deeply ironic that NPR should now stand accused of systematic political bias, when in reality it is in the world of private commercial radio that systematic political bias is currently so entrenched. The Center for American Progress's survey in 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners revealed that a remarkable "91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming [was] conservative, and [only] 9 percent... progressive!" Political bias doesn't come much more entrenched than that. Weakening public broadcasting, with the hope of eventually removing its presence entirely, would not be a move towards greater media freedom and political balance. It would be the final act in the full private conservative commercialization of the American airwaves.

Long ago, in a country far far away, the story unfolding before us here in the United States played itself out to much the same script. It is a story we would do well to recall, since it underscores the degree to which the current attack on the funding of public broadcasting is not primarily about public broadcasting at all. It is about the undermining of one vital set of social institutions after another - social institutions deemed progressive by Republican strategists and as such, damaging to their cause.

In the UK in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power determined to undermine, and if possible entirely eliminate, institutions favored by her political opponents and capable of challenging her rule. She knew well enough that if she could undermine those, she could seriously tilt the balance of political power permanently in her favor. Her main ire - as with Republican Governors in Mid-West states right now - was with public sector trade unionism, against which she resolutely set her face. But while weakening them, she (in the manner of the modern Republican Party) also moved to weaken or eliminate social and cultural organizations which she found too independent of the short-term market pressures that she so favored. She moved against the BBC. She moved against the National Health Service, and she even moved against the Open University - the large "second chance" university created by her Labour Party predecessors. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, like Ronald Reagan, succeeded in weakening trade unions; but she simultaneously experienced powerful and effective push-back against attempts to replace public institutions with private ones in the areas of health care, education and culture. That push-back was so successful, indeed, that those institutions remain today both publicly funded and socially effective.

Those of us who understand the particular importance of public broadcasting to the quality of both cultural and political life in this country need to generate a similar push-back now. Our campaigning should consist not simply of saying "no" to cuts in Social Security and "no" to cuts in Medicaid, but also - equally loudly - in saying "no" to cuts in federal spending in support of public broadcasting. We have to say, over and over again, that the removal of a subsidy of $445 million will not materially ease the budget deficit, but it will materially damage a precious American institution. The American Right understands well enough that an intelligent electorate will not support Tea Party excess, and wants to end federal funding to any institution which might help sustain that intelligence. Does the White House understand just how determined its political opponents are to dumb us all down? I do hope so. Because in the absence of the high quality media output that public service broadcasting currently provides, there would be only so much American Idol and Rush Limbaugh that my tattered senses would be able to take. More than public broadcasting is currently at stake. So too is my sanity!

The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone; but they are informed by my membership of the Community Advisory Board of WFDD, Winston-Salem's own public radio station, and by my admiration for the quality of WFDD's journalism and output.

First posted with full sourcing and footnotes at www.davidcoates.net.