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Congress: Leave NPR Alone

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Tomorrow, the House of Representatives is poised to pass a federal budget that zeroes out any support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, slashing funding for NPR, PBS, and dozens of local stations across the country. A handful of bills are also working their way through Congress that would do the same. The tale is so riveting, the impact so monumental, that we could call this NPR's "Driveway Moment".

Anyone who cares about or relies upon public broadcasting should be glued to this story like a Terry Gross interview with Elvis Presley found alive. If you can't imagine your daily commute without Morning Edition, or the nights you can flip TV channels from some vapid reality show to truly thought-provoking reporting on PBS, then you should be making some noise. If you remember learning to count from Sesame Street, you should be ready to howl like the Count if the show gets killed.

Already, a million people have signed petitions against defunding public media, and the calls for support are increasing every hour, including from other members of Congress. Today, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Ma.), Earl Blumenauer (d-Ore.) and Nita Lowey (D-NY) announced an amendment that would restore the funding that was cut out of the budget initially.

I'm not trying to scare you with a "Glenn Beck doomsday chalkboard" by predicting complete and utter disaster. But I will tell you that the threats to our public broadcasting system are serious and real. And while our radio dials won't suddenly go to static, if funding is slashed for public media, we'll see (and hear) a sad and startling, and likely very rapid, decline in quality reporting and local programming.

Here's what you should know:

  • The proposed bills and the House budget would zero out the $430 million federal appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- a cost that averages a mere $1.39 per person in the United States. By comparison, we spent approximately $19.40 per capita to subsidize ethanol production in 2010.
  • More than 70 percent of that funding goes to local stations around the country, providing the lifeblood for broadcasters in rural or economically hard-hit areas where there are fewer sources of news and programming.
  • Public media have become a vital resource for Americans at a time when commercial journalism is in decline: U.S. print newsrooms have shrunk by 25 percent in the past three years alone. Local television stations have lost more than 1,500 jobs since 2008, leaving public broadcasters as primary news outlets. In some parts of the country, public media are the only source of local news and public affairs programs.
Now it's true that NPR has taken some hits in recent months, what with Juan Williams-Gate. This controversy, coupled with the need to cut the federal deficit, has given some lawmakers the political cover they need to urgently push for pulling the plug on public media. Keep in mind that public broadcasting has been under fire since its infancy, and has to crawl back to Congress every year to plead for ever-shrinking amounts of funding, making it vulnerable to partisan political meddling.

Even with its dwindling federal budget, public media has managed to gain the trust and respect of the majority of Americans, especially at a time when corporate media is fascinated with Snooki's hairdo resembling a showdog, and the Comcast-NBC merger ushers in a new era of mega-media consolidation. We should be pushing for more funding for public media, not fighting against less.

Around the world, governments are clamping down and threatening the core information infrastructures in their nations, shutting down Internet service, and attacking and deporting journalists. The threats facing our public broadcasters are far less visible and far less violent, but the impact may be the same.

It's time for members of Congress to stop playing politics with public media, and let some of the best journalists and media makers in the nation do their job. We need them now more than ever.