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NPR defunding vote: Don't diminish democracy to settle a political score

The NPR video sting makes it easier to repeat the talking point that public radio doesn’t deserve public support. But research of public media in other democracies shows the opposite is true.

By Rodney Benson / March 14, 2011



New York

Republicans in Congress have wanted to defund public broadcasting for decades. Now, after former National Public Radio fundraising executive Ronald Schiller was caught saying that NPR would be “better off in the long run without federal funding,” they’re on the verge of making that happen. A vote could happen this week.

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Last week’s video sting certainly makes it easier to repeat the talking point that public radio doesn’t deserve public support. But careful research of public media in other democracies shows the opposite is true.

Before they rush to strip crucial funding from public media, lawmakers should pause to consider just how small the investment and how big the return really are.

A tiny amount

Public funding in the United States is already far beneath the norm in other strong democracies. In a recent study of 14 other democracies – stretching from Australia to Norway to Canada – Matthew Powers and I show that per capita public spending in those countries ranges from $30 to more than $130. This compares to less than $1.50 for federal funding in the United States. Moreoever, when you add in state and local funding, corporate and foundation donors, as well as individual contributions, the US per capita total rises to just $9.

Amount of funding isn’t everything. But it does make a difference. The highest quality, most independent public media systems – such as those in Germany, Britain, and the Scandinavian countries – tend to be those that can rely on a steady, substantial stream of public funding, even in challenging economic times. While many of these countries also face substantial budget deficits, there is no serious talk of “zeroing out” public media. The $420 million appropriated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could be increased 20-fold – bringing it up to the minimal per capita investment of countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada – and it would still make up just two-tenths of 1 percent of the US federal budget.

But what is truly remarkable is public media’s role as an engine for democracy – a benefit that should resonate with lawmakers across the political spectrum.

We consulted with journalists, scholars, and policymakers, surveyed the voluminous research literature, and reviewed numerous examples of independent, critical reporting by public radio and TV across the 14 countries.

Smarter citizens

What we discovered is the crucial role of public media in creating informed citizens. In countries with strong public media systems, such as virtually all of western Europe, public knowledge about government and international affairs is substantially higher than in countries dominated by commercial media, such as the United States. This holds true across a population’s spectrum of education, income, and race and ethnicity.

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