Color me shocked that the House Republicans are proposing big cuts in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. After all, in our trillion-plus-dollar federal budget, what comparably puny $100 million cut is most likely to make the front page of the Washington Post? Which agency cannot be mentioned by liberal reporters without the words “Sesame Street” or “Clifford the Big Red Dog” seeping into the first paragraph?
But the public broadcasters are also shocked. They had no idea it was coming. You can be assured of this. Because every hint of a whisper of a cut gets treated like the planet was about to combust spontaneously. Over the weekend, many PBS and NPR stations began airing campaign commercials lobbying their audience to call Congress and raise a ruckus against the cuts. Here in Washington, WETA ran a roughly 50-second commercial sounding the alarm at least five times: After the NewsHour, after Washington Week, after Now, after the last Tucker Carlson Unfiltered, and after Charlie Rose. They put their hyperbole in heavy rotation.
As you can see very quickly in the media accounts, the PBS lobby is loud, obnoxious, and full of exaggeration. John Lawson of the PBS station lobby is typical: He says this is “at least malicious wounding, if not outright attempted murder, of public broadcasting in America.” While Lawson casts House Republicans as the aspiring Lorena Bobbitts and Lizzie Bordens of PBS, they once again go out and find itty-bitty red-state public broadcasters to predict their impending doom, in this case Alaska. If you’re blessed with youth and missed this routine in 1995 under Newt Gingrich, just know it’s all in the playbook. (CBS did an NPR-boosting segment in 1995 with accordion-playing grandmas in Sitka, Alaska, saying, ‘See, no effete liberalism here!’)
The first answer to that claim–don’t starve the little red-state stations–is to tell Mr. Lawson that perhaps the wealthy mega-stations with hundreds of employees (WGBH in Boston, for example) can forego their federal funding for their sister stations’ behalf. Fat chance.
Today’s story on the campaign commercials in the Washington Post puts the proposed cuts in a real-world context. WETA says the cuts would amount to about $1 million for them….and WETA had revenues of almost $67 million. Does the word “devastating” come to mind? Hardly. But that’s the lobbying language they’re using.
So begin the conservative playbook with this defense. Liberals are not allowed to claim both that a) public broadcasting barely takes any money from the federal government and b) taking away $100 million is “attempted murder” of the system. That’s especially true when a big private benefactor (McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc) just left NPR with $200 million–twice as much as the first year’s proposed cut–in a private donation. Know that public broadcasting is very fat and happy and established. They have around 350 PBS stations (my colleague Brent Baker says ABC, CBS, and NBC each have less than 200), and more than 700 NPR affiliates.
Taking the federal funding out would in no way destroy the system, but it would make public broadcasters work harder for their money, and perhaps pay more attention to serving their consumers. Oh, I’m sorry, the lefties of public broadcasting prefer to see their listeners as “citizens, not consumers.” (If you’re conservative, you’re neither. You’re just the poor sap whose taxes are used to besmirch you.)
At worst, denying the public-broadcasting empire their federal funding might trim the station list a bit. In many large markets, there are duplicative PBS and NPR affiliates. In Washington, there are three PBS stations, and for NPR listeners, WAMU and WETA are becoming more and more indistinguishable. Each has dumped most of their musical formats (WAMU’s was bluegrass, WETA’s classical) for more NPR news/talk programming, leaving those musical “consumers” angry as each station eyes–shhh– better ratings and pledge drives. In today’s empire of public broadcasting, most licensing stations are publicly owned by universities and other local nonprofits. They are not owned and operated from Washington, where politicians in the capital can close or sell stations, but their noncommercial frequencies can be sold for other purposes. For example, in Washington a few years ago, the University of the District of Columbia sold its (largely jazz) station to C-SPAN, which now broadcasts C-SPAN Radio locally.
But know this: Threats to federal PBS/NPR funding are fantastic for station donation levels. In 1995, Newt Gingrich’s talk of zeroing out of federal funding, which spurred the last wild tales of Big Bird on the gallows, led to a more than 15 percent increase in donations, which might suggest losing 15 percent of federal funding isn’t much of a “murder.” The bottom line is this: The public-broadcasting empire wants to be government-funded, as well as funded from every other direction. They want a European, BBC-style feel to the system, even as they squeeze every Happy Meal penny out of private donors. They find it distasteful, if not inconceivable, to be privatized and statist as the same time.
One obvious fiscal answer to fewer federal dollars for PBS: a few commercials. But that’s heresy in the PBS system, which likes to be less obvious in its pursuit of the almighty dollar. There is one glaring exception to a no-commercial policy: PBS’s little self-promotional ads. After you watch a half-hour of ridiculously imbalanced liberal programming (like Now with David Brancaccio), you get a smooth TV ad that asserts, “Who do you trust to tell all sides of a story? Who do you trust to let all voices be heard? Who do you trust to teach your children? Who do you trust to help make sense of it all? Americans trust PBS more than any other television network.” That’s their purchased Roper poll talking. Your federal dollars go to polling and advertising for more federal dollars.
This is perhaps the most obvious imbalance in public broadcasting. They constantly come on with these commercials and plead all the way through pledge drives about how precious they are and how fair and how educational and how much they need their money (and you don’t need to know about people like Bill Moyers and Ken Burns who make millionaires of themselves with the PBS book and DVD spinoffs). Can you imagine PBS being balanced enough for an anti-pledge drive? Where someone gets to come on for ten minutes and tell you why you should not contribute? Or a slick TV commercial at the end of a biased PBS show telling you: “Who just paid for this show claiming Bush and Cheney feed off the corpse of war? You did, with your tax dollars. Make sure to tell your congressman how much you appreciate having your conservative leaders maligned at taxpayer expense.” Balance wouldn’t seem very fair to the folks at PBS. They’re use to having their way and making us pay.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.