IN our nation's capital, lawmakers are striving to do what the American people have clearly asked for: return more of the government to the governed. And this is what we've been doing in public broadcasting for more than 25 years. For example:
*The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which helped create and develop public television and radio, distributes nearly three-fourths of its money to local stations around the country.
*Public broadcasting treats federal funds as seed money - start-up capital - that it cultivates for use at the local level. This seed money, which comprises 14 percent of the industry's income, is the mainsail that attracts the winds of capital that public broadcasting needs to keep moving forward.
*Control of programming exists where it should: with individual stations.
These examples don't represent an effort to "get on trend," but rather illustrate that CPB continues to do what it was created to do: entrust local public broadcasters with federal funds to provide programming to their communities that is educational, noncommercial, and universally accessible.
CPB's primary objective is to ensure that every American is given the opportunity to choose public broadcasting. The Congress created CPB to represent the public interest. The language of the law isn't elegant - "to facilitate the development of public telecommunications" - but its purpose is clear.
As Americans squeeze more and more out of each dollar, they want to know that what they're buying is going to work, last, and at least retain some value. But their trust is harder to earn than their money.
Public broadcasting earns that trust by airing high-quality programming that's useful, educational, and exciting. In May, public television aired "The Way West," a documentary of our native American history. But public broadcasting must also earn that trust in the United States Congress, where the public money and public policy governing public broadcasting will be debated.
Here's what CPB has demonstrated so far:
*First, we deliver. Congress requested a plan that would reduce public broadcasting's dependency on federal dollars, and in three months' time CPB proposed a blueprint for the future.
*Second, we play by the rules. CPB responds to congressional calls for workable funding solutions. Its blueprint advances the mission of public broadcasting in a way that's politically viable.
*Third, CPB owns up to what's achievable and what isn't. On the basis of financial analysis by Lehman Brothers, a New York investment firm, we have concluded that no combination of cost savings and new sources of revenue can fully replace the current level of tax dollars spent on public broadcasting. CPB proposes ways to cut costs and generate revenue and recommends a private trust fund, the income from which would support public broadcasting and either supplement or replace the annual appropriation.
*And fourth, CPB leads by example. In the past year, we have reduced the staff by 20 percent and cut our administrative costs by 10 percent. Less than 5 percent of this year's $285 million appropriation is spent on overhead.
We are doing our job. But what's at stake here isn't CPB or the jobs of its 93 employees. What's at stake is public broadcasting.
Our challenge is to recommit ourselves to the work of securing a vital public broadcasting system for the future, renewing CPB's pact with the American people only after thoughtful and probing review.
There are important questions before us as we enter the age of information. Are we willing to advance public broadcasting, not merely sustain it? Will we use it to unbridle, not restrain, our country's can-do spirit?