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.

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.

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.

Greater public funding also counters any tendency toward liberal or conservative bias by making public media more independent of any particular audience. These public outlets speak to a broad swath of their nations’ citizens, not to the mostly ideologically homogeneous viewers and listeners that define the constituencies of the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

We found that several key policies keep public media at arms-length from partisan pressure and thus ensure its maximum effectiveness for strengthening democracy.

First, where funding is established for a multi-year period, it is harder for a government to punish public media for programming it doesn’t like. Whenever countries go from multi-year funding or license fees to annual parliamentary appropriations – as has happened in New Zealand – the result tends to be a decline in independence and quality in terms of the amount of in-depth, critical public affairs programming and real alternatives to the standard commercial fare.

Second, it’s important to have strong legal protections of democratic accountability and autonomy. In Britain, this takes the form of the Royal Charter that sets goals and funding for a period of 10 years. Once the charter is established, the government’s capacity to micro-manage the BBC is limited. In Germany, funding is set by an independent body – the KEF – enjoined to set funding only on the basis of technical and professional criteria.

And third, multiple layers of administrative boards or agencies serve as “buffers” to keep partisan interference at a distance. In both Sweden and Britain, public media are essentially owned by non-governmental trusts. Just as important is how the members of these trusts or administrative boards are selected. In many countries, the terms of members are staggered to help assure diversity of viewpoints. And the power to appoint is spread out among many parties and branches of government.

Public media should be strengthened

Congress should draw on these successful examples to strengthen both the autonomy and broad public-service missions of NPR and PBS.

Do public media work perfectly? Of course not. They have their blind spots just as do commercial media. What’s clear is that the Internet and commercial media, increasingly oriented toward niche audiences, cannot replace public media in informing the entire citizenry.

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At a time when many commercial media are cutting back on the kind of journalism that holds public officials accountable, public media in many democracies – such as Denmark, Canada, Germany, and Britain – continue to make substantial investments in investigative reporting. Public media in other democracies also make special efforts to provide programming for low-income and minority publics that is difficult to monetize for commercial media. This type of programming is essential if government of, by, and for the people is to have any real meaning.

Because our system of government works better with a well-funded, autonomous public media, lawmakers should think twice before defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The vitality of our democracy should not be diminished to shave a miniscule amount of money – or to settle political scores.

Rodney Benson is associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University and the co-author of “Public Media and Political Independence.”

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