Annual Report | October 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Public Media Fights Above Its Weight

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In 1969, a softspoken protestant minister with a manner too gentle for Washington appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications.  The question was whether the federal government would grant the recently created Corporation for Public Broadcasting the 20 million dollars it needed to get off the ground.  Asked to testify on behalf of educational children’s television, Mr. Fred Rogers – minister and public television star – came from his neighborhood to the capitol.  Before him sat the hassled Senator John Pastore.  As the hearing drew to a close, Mr. Rogers had a question for the senator:

Mr. Rogers: Could I tell you the words of one of the songs, which I feel is very important?

Senator Pastore (D-RI): Yes.

Mr. Rogers: This has to do with that good feeling of control which I feel that children need to know is there.

What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough?…And be able to do something else instead — and think this song –

‘I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime….And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.’

Senator Pastore (D-RI): I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.

And with Mr. Roger’s lyrics, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was saved from the first of many attempts to abolish it.  Mr. Rogers went on to host his television program, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, on the National Educational Network and then on its successor, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), until 2001.  Along with Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood remains among the most popular educational television shows ever produced.

With 233 million viewers every year, its programs are indeed popular, so why is funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting so devisive?  The budget for the entire organization has never broken the $500 million mark, making it a small ticket item in the grand scheme of the federal budget.  The obscure National Institute of Standards and Technology has twice the budget, yet most Americans have never heard of the agency, let alone debated its existence.  (The agency sets measurement standards for industry in the United States.)  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, however, has been the object of debate since its creation.

There are two reasons public media raises hackles.  First, there is the issue of bias.  If public media is liberally biased, why should taxpayers—liberal or conservative—allow the federal government to fund it?  Bias aside, there is the question of why taxpayer dollars should even be used to fund media.  How can public media function as a source of news if it is beholden to the government?

Bias is difficult to show, let alone assess, along party lines.  More liberals than conservatives watch PBS and listen to National Public Radio. There is no evidence, however, that public media is more or less critical of politicians based on party affiliation. In fact, the 2011 Pew Research Cetner poll of media consumers showed that the majority of Americans consider PBS and NPR to be balanced news sources.

Interestingly, political affiliation aside, the socioeconomic level of those who consume public media is very diverse.  According to the 2010 Nielsen ratings, children from low-income homes make up forty-eight percent of the viewership of Sesame Street, the most popular children’s show on PBS. The remaining viewers are evenly distributed among middle and upper class homes.

The second question is why government should fund media at all, and it is a nuanced one.  First of all, there is the issue of public media being beholden to the government.  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967 to address just that.  Money from the federal budget does not go directly to media outets.  It is funneled through the CPB, which is controlled by a board appointed by the president and approved by congress.  “The CPB is meant to act as a buffer,” explains Bruce Ramer, current president of the corporation.  The CPB allows federal dollars for public media to be allocated via a corporation with an appointed, not an elected, board.

The distribution of funds to public media outlets by the CPB is where the debate centers.  Those in favor of public media funding point to the recipients of CPB funds—aprimarily member stations around the country—as a reason for continued funding.  Member stations in the most rural areas rely most heavily on the CPB, so without federal funding, the first stations to go off the air would be the stations in the areas most underserved when it comes to news.  In this way, the CPB is a way for the federal government to assure that even areas where it is not commercially viable to operate news outlets receive coverage of the nation’s and world’s events.

Those against public media funding take this argument with a grain of salt.  Alice Rivlin, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out that while it is true that the CPB serves rural areas, it is also true that large member stations in major cities such as WNYC in New York and WQED in Pittsburgh receive substantial CPB funding—up to thirty percent of their working annual budgets.  These stations, she says, could most likely operate without the aid of the CPB, but have never been asked to.  The money they receive is tax money wasted because the funds could easily come from elsewhere.

In a year when budget shortfalls and national debt have plagued the news and the markets, the CPB will have to take a close look at its spending practices.  Just as larger agencies have had to tighten their belts, the CPB will have to consider how it allocates funds, and perhaps in doing so we will see less of the CPB pie going to stations in major cities, station that can survive with a little less help in 2012.

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