Congress dealt a setback to public broadcasting Thursday, approving in two separate votes funding cuts that conservatives, in particular, have long sought.
The House voted Thursday to eliminate NPR's federal funding – and to prohibit public radio stations from using taxpayer money to pay NPR dues or to buy NPR programs. At the same time, the Senate approved a three-week budget resolution that includes a $50 million cut to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, parent of NPR and PBS.
Neither move will cripple public broadcasting. The House bill – which would deliver a big punch to NPR – has yet to come before the Democratic-controlled Senate, and is not likely to. The Senate action does mean less money for CPB, but it's a short-term cut, so far.
Still, it's clear that efforts to whittle – or ax – taxpayer support for public broadcasting are escalating in the new Congress, and that House Republicans are emboldened by the need to cut the $1.7 trillion US deficit and by resurgent charges that NPR coverage has a liberal bias.
Thursday moves are another shot across the bow of a news organization that through the years has come under regular attack from the right – starting with President Richard Nixon, who in 1973 vetoed CPB funding out of a conviction that programs such as PBS’s “Washington Week in Review” were biased against him. They also keep alive the debate over the value of public broadcasting today.
Proponents of the House bill hammered home the message that amid a fiscal crisis, the US cannot afford to pour money into what Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee characterized as an outpost for wealthy elites. "It's time to get NPR out of the taxpayer's pocket," she said during the debate. She echoed a point made recently by Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “When presidents of government-funded broadcasting are making more than the president of the United States, it’s time to get the government out of public broadcasting,” he wrote.
House Democrats, defending the role of public broadcasting in America, dubbed the fight an ideological one that would save, at best, some $1.7 million but that would cost 9,000 jobs. "There are no savings to the taxpayer," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon. The result will be higher costs for local public radio stations to produce more of their own programming. "It's expensive and complex," which is why stations buy programs from NPR, he says.
Recent scandals have fueled the moves. A propaganda video by Republican activists showed an NPR fundraiser calling tea party members “xenophobic” and saying NPR would be “better off in the long run without federal funding.” The ensuing outcry this month led to his departure and the resignation of NPR’s president.
To NPR critics, the video showed that high-ranking people at NPR think poorly of conservatives, buttressing their complaints about the news coverage.
NPR’s “tendency to cover only the angles on stories that benefit liberal causes is becoming clear,” says Leonard Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “That would be fine, if they were not receiving public tax money to support their programming. But they are. And there is the rub.”
Early justifications for public TV and radio no longer apply, they argue, because there are now so many more media options than back in the three-broadcast-network days.
Supporters counter that public broadcasting still provides news coverage that is valuable and distinct in today’s media marketplace. Sure, the History Channel might nibble at a project from Ken Burns, the renowned documentary filmmaker who made his name with his 10-part Civil War series on PBS, but “when Ken says he wants 10 hours to do a series on Prohibition, they’d come back with ‘We’ll give you an hour,’ ” says Patrick Butler, president of the Public Media Association, a coalition of public radio and TV stations.
Were the House to have its way on defunding NPR and CPB, hundreds of smaller and rural public radio stations would feel a big pinch. Up to 80 percent of their budgets is from CPB. Many are the sole radio service in their regions.
Brian Terhorst, general manager of Northstate Public Radio in rural northern California, gets $180,000 a year from the CPB for his station – just over 20 percent of its budget. Without it, he says, “there would be deep cuts in programming.” The media landscape may have expanded, but that “doesn’t mean people in our area can either afford it or even have access to it,” he says. His listeners still access the Internet with a dial-up connection.
NPR reaches 34 million listeners a week, according to Arbitron. Opponents say it appeals mainly to a latte-quaffing liberal cohort. Not so, says Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s vice president of marketing: “This audience is not just blue-state coastal elites, but it includes listeners in every market all over the country.”
CPB’s current public tab of $432 million is “nearly meaningless” in the face of America’s huge budget crisis, says Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and reputation management firm in Washington. Efforts to end public funds for broadcasting are ideologically driven, he says.
The issue is not about politics, but rather a mind-set about civic discourse, says Robert Thompson, a media expert at Syracuse University in New York. “In any given week, I could point out just as many conservative voices given more than a fair hearing on NPR,” he says. “So really the issue is not bias, but rather the very nature of the storytelling.”
Mr. Levick agrees. “We have come to a point where the very act of talking without name-calling and listening respectfully to people whose ideas you may abhor has become associated with being liberal,” and more dangerous, he adds, “treasonous.” This shift threatens civic health far more than the loss of CPB funding, he says.
Then there’s the music. Stephen Yasko, general manager of music-heavy WTMD in Baltimore, notes that one-third of all public radio listening is to music. CPB negotiates blanket rights for music access for all its affiliates – an invaluable benefit, he says. Without that, stations could not afford to pay royalties to play the jazz, folk, blues, and classical that often dominate their playlists. He adds: “There is virtually no slot left for this kind of music on the dial – other than on NPR.”