Trump's budget cuts dampen 50th anniversary of public broadcasting

As Trump attempts to dismantle the culture agencies, public media worry about forced privatization.

Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP/File
PBS's president and chief executive officer Paula Kerger speaks at PBS's Executive Session at the 2017 Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Ca., in January. President Trump's 2018 budget proposal plans to end funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Nearly 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the “Public Broadcasting Act of 1967” into law, hoping it could encourage more diverse programming and non-commercial broadcasting. 

But on Thursday, President Trump proposed a budget that defunds the agencies that grew from the act. Cuts include the $445 million budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the parent organization of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). 

“We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act, what I think has been the most successful public-private partnership – how ironic it would be if we were defunded this year,” Paula Kerger, chief executive for PBS, told the Associated Press on Saturday. 

The budget plan for fiscal year 2018, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Linda Feldmann puts it, highlights two core Trump goals – “a reduced role for government in American life, and an emphasis on ‘hard power’ over ‘soft power’ in the global arena” – that reflect Trump’s belief “in the private sector and disregard for government bureaucracies.” 

"We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting," Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney said in a Thursday morning interview

Currently, the CPB’s yearly grants account for around 15 percent of public television and stations’ funding overall, PBS said. Although it costs only $1.35 per person yearly, federal spending in public broadcasting is crucial, particularly in rural, low-income areas, where it is more expensive to operate TV stations. 

“There are parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, where over-the-air broadcast is significant in terms of how we get our content to people,” PBS's Ms. Kerger told Vox in 2016. “But it's also how we connect into a lot of cable systems.”

The figures from CPB illustrate how local public broadcast stations rely on the allocation grants. The agency granted nearly 75 percent of its $445 million federal funds to local radio and television station in 2016, according to its federal appropriation report. The grant sizes vary depending on the size of the station and its market, but their goal is to enable the local stations to develop transmission, distribution, and membership, in addition to programming. 

“Millions of Americans depend on their local public radio station for the fact-based, objective, public service journalism they need to stay informed about the world and about the news in their own communities,” NPR chief operating officer Loren Mayor said in a statement.

The potential loss of the subsidies, which could cut into educational channels such as PBS Kids, puts the youngest viewers at risk, too, said Lisa Henson, a television and film producer.

Citing the example of “Sesame Street,” which for the past 50 years has grown to be the cornerstone of inspiring a child’s interest in learning, Ms. Henson argued in an opinion piece for Newsweek that federal funding has made it possible for the program to reach the high number of young children who do not attend preschool, opening “a world of possibilities” to them. 

“This funding is especially important to stations in rural areas of our country, where … PBS is often their only source of educational media,” she wrote. “PBS stations across the country also provide community engagement that help bring the on-air learning to life with resources, events, educator support and digital learning media.”

In response to the potential funding cuts, PBS has launched a campaign with a Twitter account named “@ValuePBS” and a hashtag “#ILovePBS,” hoping its audience could reach out to their lawmakers and make their voices heard on the issue. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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