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Why Big Bird Needs Your Tax Dollars

March 18, 2011

And Why Your Shouldn’t Begrudge Them

    As a former journalism teacher, I thought I’d present a little lesson about public broadcasting. It isn’t much different from what I used to present to my students. With yesterday’s vote by House Republicans to defund National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Systems, it is very important that the public understand just what that means.
    The reason conservatives want to defund public broadcasting has nothing to do with budgetary concerns. As PBS travel reporter Rick Steves correctly points out, the government spends more money on military marching bands than it does on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Public broadcasting, including PBS and NPR combined costs about $1.38  per person annually.  That money helps support 21,000 jobs, which, in turn, goes directly back into the economy. Rather, it is because the right perceives public broadcasting to have a liberal bias. To some degree, this is true – as Stephen Colbert correctly joked, sometimes “The facts have a well-known liberal bias.” Also, the arts community tends to lean left and, as representation of that audience is a function of public broadcasting, that left-leaning point of view obviously becomes part of the coverage. However, public broadcasting has less of a liberal bias than FOX News has a conservative bias.  In fact, opinion polls show that most Americans think it has no liberal news bias.  As a Roper poll has shown for seven years in a row, public broadcasting has the most trusted news content across all ideological and partisan lines. As congressman Jim McGovern (D -MA) argued, if we are going to defund PBS/NPR on that basis, democrats should demand that no federal dollars end up at FOX, as we do not agree with its point of view.
    And this is to say nothing about the fact that the entire spring-board for the vote yesterday was the fraudulent, very selectively edited video by James O’Keefe. Glenn Beck himself even made the case. O’Keefe has a history of  liberal-bashing “gotcha” journalism. As it turns out, he has practiced the yellowest of yellow journalism. He makes and influences the story with his presence, and then heavily edits the resultant video to make it present his preconceived version of the truth. And even after it was brought to light (very quickly this time) that the video he made about NPR was, at best, inaccurate, Republicans still used the uproar it caused among their base to rush the vote. A vote, that needs to be pointed out, violates their recent campaign promises to have debate, transparency and time to review bills presented.
    But these issues are really beside the point. All developed nations, including ours for the time being, have a publicly funded public broadcasting system. The reason is to have at least one medium which is free of commercial, corporate influence. Fairly moderate, but right-of-center, radio commentator Michael Smerconish complained yesterday of the spin presented in the media’s coverage of the crisis in Japan. As I pointed out to him, just days ago he also argued that NPR should stand alone without government funding and compete for advertisers. Where does he think a good portion of the spin comes from? The spin comes from commercial influence and the “competition” for ratings. Spin creates ratings; the more outrageous, the higher the ratings these days.
    Bill Moyers certainly has his opinions, as do all journalists, but whom do you trust more to present the facts about General Electric, Bill Moyers, or General Electric? News was not intended to be, nor should it be, profit driven, as that goal inevitably distorts the truth.
    NPR does have corporations and foundations as underwriters. However, unlike commercial media, public broadcasting does not allow, as indicated in mission statements and contracts with said underwriters, any dictation or influence of programing. Further, the underwriting has become more necessary than it had been in the past due to previous Republican budget cuts.
    In large markets, public broadcasting could undoubtedly survive without public funding. However in small markets and poor communities the same cannot be said. Again, it is the people with the smallest and weakest voice, those who are most in need of our community support that Republicans attack.
    Public broadcasting is the only media that truly presents educational offerings. It is often the only form of preschool education many children receive. It is free of advertising and focuses solely on educating children. How many of us learned basic skills from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers without cost to our parents aside from that of owning a television? Studies indicate that children who watch educational programing on PBS show marked improvement in key literacy skills. (Of course it could be argued that these improved skills undermine the conservative attack on public education.)

    And the educational programing is not limited to children. Public broadcasting also offers a variety of adult education programing, such as GED preparation.

        Conservatives have already targeted programs like Headstart for funding cuts, even though we know children who attend such programs are 9 times more likely to become productive members of society instead of drains upon it. And now they threaten to remove Sesame Street from the communities that need it most.
    Two, often competing but integral, forces of our constitutional republic are representation of the will of the majority and protecting the rights of the minority from the will of the majority. Often, public broadcasting presents the only entertainment and information sources for that minority. It often serves communities too small to garner attention from commercial interests, such as small concentrated communities of ethnic minorities, the arts community and others. Representing those minority interests to some small degree should be a primary function of our government and our tax dollars.

2 Comments leave one →
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    March 20, 2011 6:10 pm

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  2. Heywood Jablome permalink
    March 21, 2011 5:41 pm

    Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame St.?

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