The Case for Funding The Corporation for Public Broadcasting

The following is in response to two questions recently raised by a friend who opposes funding public broadcasting. His questions were:
1. Is it really the role of government to support such enterprises?
2. Do you really believe that NPR is unbiased?

Here was my response.

First, I guess I have to take just a little bit of an issue with how you frame your first question. I believe that “citizens” should support public broadcasting. I wouldn’t call it government support.

I also would never call The Corporation for Public Broadcasting an “enterprise.” For me, that connotes visions of shareholders wanting to know how this quarter’s performance will translate into dividends and an increase in the value of their equity. I don’t envision the CPB board as having dividend payments and share price on their agenda.

I do think that a civil society ought to appreciate and place enough value on what public broadcasting brings to that society to have about 2 of our tax dollars per year per every man, woman, and child in America spent on funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s just over one-half penny per day per citizen. The DoD’s nearly $600 billion budget, on the other hand, costs each of us $2,000 per year, or $5.48 per day. 1000 times different.

IMHO, CPB has proven their worth over the years and many times over. They brought us all the classic programming everyone likes to talk about like Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Nova and much, much more. More recent works include http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/reagan/.

It is precisely the non-commercial, non-profit, public service characteristics that they offer that I think are most precious and most important to a civil and well-informed society.

Supporters of public broadcasting can attest to the frequent pleas for donations to make up the difference between what they get from our paltry tax dollars and what it takes to actually employ some 21,000 people (http://www.cpb.org/funding/) who bring us news and programming that simply would not be commercially viable nor nearly as valuable if it had the taint of advertising dollars influencing it. Would we really want our kids watching Big Bird shill for Taco Bell? I admit that I cringe whenever I see Exxon/Mobil thanked for their contribution to programming, and I wonder exactly how much influence they may be exercising over the content. There has been concern expressed about that, but I won’t go into it here.

I also think it’s important to put their funding into perspective. CPB is asking for $604million for FY2014 after having been, “faced with flat CPB funding for the better part of the past decade.” (http://tinyurl.com/4avg34k).

600million sounds like a big number, and it is, until you look at the budget as a whole.

The Department of Defense’s budget for 2011 is $548.9 billion (http://tinyurl.com/4f22njv), almost 1000 times greater than CPBs. I won’t deny nor debate here the value and the need for a military and the jobs tied to our industrial military complex. I just question whether we need a military that’s this big, if it’s the right type for the 21st century, and where the logic is in wanting to balance the budget by entirely eliminating the CPB while increasing defense spending?

If we’re worried about paying for CPB, I would prefer that we reduce the DoD budget by the equivalent 0.1%. One-tenth of one percent of the DoD budget funds CPB.

It gets even more difficult for me to understand the attraction for eliminating CPB’s funding when it’s compared to a $3.6 trillion dollar budget. CPB’s $0.0006 trillion funding request just doesn’t look at all meaningful. It certainly makes no sense to an accounting neophyte like me to be one of the first budget items to eliminate.

As for the question of bias, yes, of course there’s bias. We human beings, by our very nature, are biased about pretty much everything. There’s no getting around that.

To my experience, the “bias” of people who support public broadcasting seems to be toward a sincere desire for a greater depth of coverage and information that is backed by substantiated and referenced facts than can be found or even reasonably produced, for that matter, in a 22-minute local news broadcast or in the madness of the never-ending race for ratings in a 24×7 cable news world gone mad. There’s simply not much chance of big ratings and advertising money in a news story that takes 6 or 7 minutes in a country which seems to suffer from mass-attention deficit disorder and a fixation on all things Khardasian.

So, yes, I proudly profess my “bias” in support of the balance that public broadcasting brings to commercial news. Even more importantly, CPB’s work appears to be the last vestige of balance to what masquerades as news these days. I really think, now more than ever, that we need news and programming that isn’t filtered or directed out of a concern for advertising dollars, corporate profit, and unabashed political agendas.

Not all of the CPB’s efforts and funds are directed to news, of course. As I started out typing this I was listening online to WDUQ‘s broadcast of a program called Studio 360. They were discussing a book entitled “Spark” about human creativity. It included a discussion of the art, photography, and reflections of the tragedy that was 9/11. Not sure where else I would have heard this. Glad that I did. I then listened to commercial-free jazz before starting the PBS American Experience Reagan documentary. I figure I’ve already gotten much more than this year’s 2 dollars worth of news and entertainment in just one morning.

Where I think we need to try to reduce or eliminate our biases is when we talk about what to do about our federal budget.

Looking at this purely from the financial perspective and through a lens of limited knowledge and understanding of the dark art of accounting, I think we need to start cutting in places that are much bigger than CPB’s funding. It is, after all, only 0.0167% of the total budget.

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