The Fight Over PBS Should Be to Broaden Its Scope, Not to Threaten It

[Source: The Chronicle of Philanthropy, by Vincent Stehle, October 28, 2012]

If Big Bird were on the ballot on Election Day, he’d probably win in a landslide.

But in our closely divided partisan election cycle, public broadcasting has once again become a sign of divided government. Sadly, in all the joking and sloganeering, what has gotten lost is a key opportunity to talk about what America really needs: a more expansive public media service.

By injecting public broadcasting into the 2012 campaign, politicians have brought into view just how paltry a sum the federal Treasury provides to public television and radio stations.

The 2012 budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the principal source of federal dollars for public media, was just $445 million, roughly 0.01 percent of the federal budget. Adding a little more to it would hardly cause significant deficit pain.

Not that the public understands this, of course. In a CNN poll, Americans said they thought public broadcasting got 5 percent of the federal budget, a figure that would translate into about $178 billion. It doesn’t need nearly that much to make a difference. It just needs a bit more money than it gets now to spread around in new ways.

As valuable as the flagship services delivered by NPR and PBS, many other media outlets and services operate in the public interest. The federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other agencies, should support a broader array of institutions providing news and information designed to strengthen healthy communities.

Free Press, a media-advocacy group, recently published a report, “Greater Than the Sum,” calling for a broader definition of public media, to encompass not only the flagship services of PBS and NPR but also many other efforts at the local, state, and national levels operating in the public interest: community-access television services, low-power and community radio stations, and the growing field of nonprofit online news organizations that are replacing the rapidly declining daily newspaper industry.

This broader concept of public broadcasting actually reflects more nearly the original intention, as expressed by President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 on November 7, prophetically declaring his intention to build “not just a broadcast system but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”

This year, whoever wins the race to be president could make a bold gesture on the day after the election, marking the 45th anniversary of President Johnson’s action, by pledging to expand federal support for a reinvigorated “Corporation for Public Media,” to strengthen the very popular broadcast services of NPR and PBS, while also providing adequate support for experimentation and expansion of President Johnson’s ”great network for knowledge” envisioned when federal support was first introduced.

But one thing no public-broadcasting advocates should support as part of this expansion: endorsing the idea that public broadcasting should start raising money by running political advertisements.

This alarming prospect is gaining traction after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this year overturned a law prohibiting public radio and television stations from accepting political advertisements.

Of course, that makes no sense because public broadcasters aren’t supposed to run commercials of any kind. But the court ruling has encouraged brainstorming of other ways political campaigns could underwrite public broadcasting.

After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashed a flood of contributions by wealthy individuals and corporations and polluted the airwaves with a toxic sludge of negative political commercials, it should be clear why this is a bad idea.

Public broadcasters have faced brutally tough circumstances in recent years, particularly as many states have greatly reduced, and in some cases even eliminated, support for public media. Despite those hardships, public broadcasters would be well advised to forgo the short-term appeal of the influx of cash from political advertisements.

Public broadcasting remains one of the few trusted institutions in American life. According to Harris Interactive, PBS was considered trustworthy by 76 percent of Americans.

By contrast, as described eloquently in Twilight of the Elites, a fascinating new book by the MSNBC news host Chris Hayes, most of America’s leading institutions have lost the confidence of many Americans.

The banking and financial industries have suffered a drastic loss of trust in the wake of corrupt practices that destroyed the U.S. housing market and nearly collapsed the entire global economy. And the Catholic Church has seen a tremendous loss of respect in the face of countless cases of pedophilia by its priests preying on a trusting flock, in many cases covered up by a corrupt church hierarchy.

“The foundation of our shared life as Americans—where we worship, where we deposit our paychecks, the teams we root for, the people who do our business in Washington—seems to be cracking before our very eyes,” writes Mr. Hayes.

And no institution has fallen further than the U.S. Congress, which recently recorded the lowest approval level ever, at just 12 percent. As Mr. Hayes puts it, “Approval ratings of Congress lag behind Paris Hilton and the United States going communist.”

So it’s time for our political leaders to give public outlets the resources it takes to satisfy the news and information needs of communities.

And it’s time for public broadcasters to pledge that they will never try to shore up their financial position by taking on the corrupting influence of political contributions on behalf of the least trusted crop of politicians in our nation’s history.