Public broadcasting needs a whole new system

On June 7, congressional Republicans launched their latest assault on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) when a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to cut $115 million from its budget. The cuts would affect PBS, NPR and other noncommercial media like Pacifica Radio.

This is the second time in less than nine months that the GOP has attempted to slash the CPB budget. And once again, public broadcasting’s defenders are mustering up their troops to “Save Big Bird.” But the broader issues remain overlooked: Is public broadcasting delivering on its promise of offering a true alternative to commercial broadcasting? Does the CPB really, as its mission statement proclaims, “encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities”?

We believe that the honest answer to these questions is “no.” It’s time to stop trying to save the CPB from budget cuts and corrupt leadership; we need to cut the purse strings and develop new, independent funding mechanisms.

The CPB has become a tool used by congressional conservatives to restrict programming within narrow political limits. Each successive attack from the right weakens public broadcasting as programmers become more skittish and public TV’s habit of survival through capitulation becomes more ingrained.

Over the years, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) studies have consistently found a pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt in PBS’s and NPR’s national news and public affairs programming. Though PBS is mandated to present a wider spectrum of opinion than for-profit media do, it is often hard to distinguish the guest lists of public broadcasting’s programs from those of their commercial counterparts. If the CPB’s government funding contributes to the homogenization and stifling of diverse voices on what is meant to be independent media, how much effort should be made to fight to protect that funding?

As long as there has been public broadcasting, there have been calls to create an alternative funding structure for PBS and NPR that would replace the CPB. Different fiscal schemes have been suggested, from selling unused spectrum to taxing commercial advertising or television sets (as Britain does for the BBC).

One such proposal, drafted by FAIR founder Jeff Cohen and Vassar professor William Hoynes and promoted by the group Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), envisions an independent trust, perhaps funded by a tax on advertising or commercial broadcast license sales, that could generate $1 billion in annual funding for a robust, truly independent public broadcasting system. While that may sound ambitious, the trust recommendation pointed to some hopeful signs in recent history:

“In 1998, House Telecommunications Subcommittee leaders Billy Tauzin and Edward Markey designed a bill (later withdrawn) to create a permanent PBS trust fund, abolish the CPB and phase out commercial underwriting messages. The Gore Commission on the social responsibilities of digital broadcasters strongly recommends that Congress create a trust fund for public television and eliminate ‘enhanced underwriting’ by corporations. A December 1998 poll by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates found an overwhelming 79 percent of the American public favoring a proposal to require commercial broadcasters to pay 5 percent of their revenues into a fund to support public broadcasting programming.”

Would creating an independent revenue source for public broadcasting be hard work? Definitely. But the latest GOP attack is a reminder that without fundamental changes in the way it is funded, public broadcasting will continue to be vulnerable to the political whims of Congress. As FAIR pointed out last time, if public broadcasting defenders continue merely to fight to protect the CPB budget, the same potential for using the CPB appropriation process as a tool to force public broadcasting further to the right will still exist, and public broadcasting will have to be “saved” again and again — most likely at the cost of yet more concessions to right-wing Republicans.

Peter Hart and Steve Rendall are analysts with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, www.fair.org. This article was distributed by MinutemanMedia.org.