Fifty years after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by law, public media has outlived its original mission. Public broadcasters should have to show Congress and President Trump why they still deserve federal funds.
Now that President Trump has unveiled his budget and put public broadcasters on notice that he plans to zero-out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, alarm bells have gone off. The hashtag #JusticeForBigBird started trending and the CPB (on whose board I currently sit) defended itself in a statement that read, in part: “The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions — all for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”
But this defense ignores today’s dramatically changed media environment. Public media now rarely offers anything that Americans can’t get from for-profit media or that can’t be supported privately.
The president’s budget is, as he might say, an opening bid. So, by the time a budget is passed, odds are that CPB will still be left standing. But if Congress actually seeks to make a meaningful cut to the $445 million annual appropriation for public television and radio, it will be tough for the CPB, and its constituent networks, PBS and NPR, to make the case that they still deserve the money, even if, according to a PBS survey, 70 percent of Trump voters don’t favor eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting. They’ll have a hard time arguing that at a time of near-limitless viewing and listening choice, and when Big Bird has migrated to pay cable, that there’s still a market failure — a dearth of offerings on for-profit TV, radio and the Internet which necessitates a continued federal subsidy. And they’ll have to acknowledge, and take steps to correct, the reality that public broadcasting currently appeals to a narrow regional and socio-economic audience. Arguing as a 7-year-old valiantly did at Sen. Tom Cotton’s recent town hall that Trump “is deleting all the parks and PBS Kids just to make a wall” just won’t cut it.
It was 1967 when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established....
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
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