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POV: Now Is Not the Time to Cut Funding for Public Broadcasting

Reducing support would increase the information deficit

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President Trump’s proposed budget threatens to pull the plug on federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the major funder of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programming and National Public Radio (NPR) and the supporter of 350 local member public television stations. This proposed cut will do very little to fix the US budget deficit, but it will contribute mightily to the shortage of reliable public information available to citizens at a time when they need it most.

Federal funds provide approximately 15 percent of public television stations’ overall funding, or $435 million a year, which amounts to about $1.35 per citizen per year. To put it in perspective, the US government spends about the same amount per year ($437 million in 2015) on US military bands.

The CPB is a unique public-private partnership that has contributed greatly to enriching the intellectual, cultural, and ethical lives of millions of Americans through its support of PBS programming, among other things. Now is not the time to cut its federal funding.

Some argue that capitalist forces are sufficient to provide a robust array of news. While free markets generally maximize utility for all, there are some products and services where the free market model does not make sense.

The rationale is clear. First, the profit motive applied to things like military action is dangerous—we don’t want to encourage use of this “product” for profit, yet we might need to use it in ways and at times that would not make sense economically. There are some products and services, however, that fall into a gray area between inherently governmental and those that are appropriately pure free-market, profit-driven enterprises. One important such sphere is information provided by the news media.

We do not need, nor would we want, a single state-run news media. But we need to make room for more robust government-supported media options.

A free and democratic society can remain so only if the citizenry is informed—accurately and without bias—about current events and public policy. It’s also clear that we are failing in that regard. One major contributing factor to this problem is precisely because the news media is a private sector, profit-driven enterprise. We therefore get news that is the cheapest and easiest to produce and the most entertaining (i.e., profitable) to watch. In an age of alternative facts, we do not necessarily get news that is informative, substantive, or even accurate.

This is clear to anyone who watches the news (whether on TV, radio, social media, or the internet). We get breaking news with sensationalism and fluff. We usually get hired guns in the form of spokespersons for each side spouting 30 seconds of canned talking points, then a few minutes of indignant shouting. Many news outlets have become the equivalent of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., complete with predictable villains and heroes. Contrast that with the philosophy of Jim Lehrer, who cohosted PBS’s NewsHour for many years: “I am not in the entertainment business.”

Why do we get info-lite? Because it costs money to do in-depth analysis and to hire real experts who can provide thorough reporting. And it is more entertaining to watch people hurl insults and verbal jabs at one another than it is to watch an in-depth, balanced segment.

But canned talking points and verbal jabs aren’t necessarily good for an informed citizenry and for democracy. In fact, the news media, driven by the desire to increase profits, actively encourages and creates dissension by focusing entirely on what divides us rather than what unites us.

Some claim that government-subsidized news programming would constitute government propaganda. But there is a world of difference between autocratic regimes—like North Korea, where citizens can receive only one state-run radio channel and one state-run newspaper—and democratic regimes that promote government-funded contributions to public broadcasting to provide news in a competitive marketplace. In fact, CPB-supported public broadcasting programs received a record 54 nominations at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards in 2016.

It is true that some people might prefer cheap, empty entertainment to worthwhile education, just as some people prefer cheap, empty calories to sound nutrition. But we don’t disband public schools and just send kids to the circus and feed them French fries and donuts every day. Nor should we give up on attempts to convey real news to citizens.

Earlier this month, thankfully, Congress pushed back against Trump’s proposed cuts by passing a comprehensive budget bill that includes funding for CPB through September 2019. Nonetheless, Trump’s misguided zeal to cut all federal funding for public broadcasting erroneously denigrates any government-funded activity as somehow socialistic or contra free markets. It also overlooks America’s historic commitment to support infrastructure that provides a public good. And it ironically poses one of the more serious threats to our ability to remain a free, democratic, informed, and yes, capitalist, nation.

John D. Woodward, Jr., is a Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations, a retired CIA officer, and a former Department of Defense official. He can be reached at jdwjr@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

6 Comments

6 Comments on POV: Now Is Not the Time to Cut Funding for Public Broadcasting

  • Logic Rules on 05.17.2017 at 8:21 am

    While CPB is a unique public-private partnership that has contributed greatly to enriching the intellectual, cultural, and ethical lives of millions of Americans, it itself is driven by certain political agendas, which are liberally biased thus I can understand why federal support is not advocated by the current government

  • Ray Joyce on 05.17.2017 at 8:49 am

    In addition there are many other benefits to the public. For example PBS stations like WGBH have pioneered media access for people with disabilities. About 50 million people in the U.S. alone benefit from closed captioning/descriptive video. While originally funded in part by federal grants these services have long since been a part of the media economy being paid for by the content providers. And being made available far beyond public broadcasting content to mainstream media to better serve audiences. Ray Joyce, former Director of Descriptive Video Service at WGBH

  • Andrew Wolfe on 05.17.2017 at 9:47 am

    PBS is no less a part of the coastal “Establishment” media than CNN, and no less a part of politics than the Democratic Party. It is government state-run media, but not it’s run by the bureaucracy, not run by officeholders in the Executive or Legislative branches. It is motivated by the big-government mindset that lies layers deeper in the government than what is usually deeper than what elected officials can influence or even recognize. Amidst PBS’s torrent of left-wing bias, we only get a few nuggets of good work which would probably have been better off in private media anyway.

  • Christine McBeth on 05.17.2017 at 12:19 pm

    I grew up far from the US coastal regions and grew up watching PBS, especially the massive amount of quality programming from WGBH Boston. PBS and the CPB delivered quality content that effectively showed me the larger world to which I belonged. This information was not conveyed by Nickelodeon or Disney. While I still love Duck Tales, it was PBS and the CPB which led me to become a research scientist (NOVA! Bill Nye the Science Guy!) that loves to travel the world (Burt Wolf! Rick Steves!) and can fix the kitchen sink (This Old House!). Given that science teaches us how think critically, and that we live in a global economy, and that all our houses are old, we need this type of programming now more than ever.

  • Wally B on 05.18.2017 at 4:57 pm

    PBS, from what I read here, is wonderful and necessary. So why shouldn’t it be profitable and not dependent upon Government (taxpayer) subsidy. Most wouldn’t want to subsidize Fox News would they?

  • Daniel O'Donnell on 06.06.2017 at 4:06 pm

    I will continue to support both WGBH and WBUR – as they both do a wonderful job of reporting the news. You can argue that they should be able to make it without subsidized support from the govt., and they can, they have, and they will. But . . . this is money well spent. I wonder how many people listen, love the programming, and then do not support it because they are under the impression it is FREE.

    It is not FREE – and people who watch it and listen to it should support it.

    There is a lot of GREAT stuff on PBS – I wish more people watched and enjoyed it – including our president. I think if people did watch PBS or listened to WBUR – most people would support it – actively – DONATIONS that is.

    Should we still support public libraries? Public schools? Public streets?

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