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Public radio and TV supporters worry about ‘save public media’ fatigue

As everyone concerned about this issue knows, last week the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting. The move was approved in the context of the massive spending bill HR1, “Making appropriations for the Department of Defense and the other departments

and agencies of the Government for the fiscal year ending September

30, 2011, and for other purposes” (in case you needed to know the full title).

Here’s the exact language of the section pertaining to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds National Public Radio, and NPR/Public Broadcasting System stations.

SEC. 1838. (a) Of the funds made available for ‘Corporation for Public Broadcasting’ in title IV of division F of Public Law 111–8, the unobligated balance is rescinded.

(b) The amounts included under the heading ‘Corporation for Public Broadcasting’ in division D of Public Law 111–117 shall be applied to funds appropriated by this division as follows: by substituting ‘$0’ for ‘$86,000,000’; by substituting ‘$0’ for ‘$25,000,000’; by substituting ‘$0’ for ‘$36,000,000’; and by substituting ‘$0’ for ‘$25,000,000’.

Yeah, this looks pretty bad if you are an NPR supporter (like me). So go sign the petition. But the problem, for several generations of media advocates, is that they’ve been through this routine before.

“It is as predictable as can be,” writes Fairness and Accuracy in Media. “Invigorated Republican politicians announce their intention to kill public broadcasting, which they claim is a bastion of liberal bias. Defenders of NPR and PBS step in to defend the system. The Republicans, who were unlikely to win a vote on their plan, retreat for the moment. Public broadcasting is ‘saved’.”

“The public broadcasting fight of 2011 is playing out the same way,” FAIR adds. “A more productive discussion of public broadcasting is sorely needed—one that is not reduced to ‘save it’ or ‘kill it’.”

Time tested tricks

Indeed, it’s unlikely that this proposed budget is going to get past the Senate or President Obama’s desk. That’s why critics like Jesse Walker of Reason and Timothy Noah of Slate roll their eyes at both Republican claims they really want to dump public radio/TV and activist battle cries to “save public broadcasting!”

Noah outlines the nine stages of this phony kill/save public broadcasting cycle. Stage Five is particularly on-target.

Stage 5. Discover that CPB, in a time-tested Washington trick, gives most of its money to local stations, which in turn give money to the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. This (legal) money-laundering scheme makes congressional districts around the country consciously dependent on and loyal to CPB.

In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle has a great article noting that the public radio/TV stations of many conservative rural districts depend on CPB money the most. Example: KIXE-TV in Redding, California, which gets 45 percent of its income from the federal government, and serves Shasta County, which favored John McCain over President Obama in 2008.

What’s the solution? For me, the best answer is taking the CPB off the hyper-politicized Congressional appropriations train, and creating an endowment for public media based on Federal Communications Commission spectrum auction proceedings and other sources of FCC and industry income.

The reform group Free Press has a bunch of creative solutions in this area, noting that if the FCC starts auctioning off lots of TV signals to the wireless sector, some of that cash could be siphoned into an endowment. Or a tax on advertising revenue could be considered. Or (calm down advertising industry) just a cut in the tax deduction that businesses can take on advertising expenses (it’s 100 percent right now), and that money moved to the public media fund. A combination of things like this could be enacted—plus help from the usual foundations, businesses, and Listeners/Viewers Like You.

But what’s the chance of any of this happening in the near future? Zero to nothing. And without it, I’m opposed to any federal cuts to the CPB. So expect this goofy ballet of false moves and false alarms to continue, no matter how tiring it becomes for its participants.

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One Response to Public radio and TV supporters worry about ‘save public media’ fatigue

  1. Robin Collier February 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    It is worse than this, as the way CPB funding is structured, many new NCE stations that got CPs in the last FCC window of 2007, will not qualify for any support from CPB, even if the Senate restores funding. CPB is set up to protect the signal of big established NCE stations from competition, particularly large Metro, University & Statewide CPs. Most of these do not serve local communities, mainly just playing NPR with very little local news or cultural production. This needs to change!

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