Public broadcasting faces another attempt to kill it by eliminating its federal support. We’ve heard this song before. Richard Nixon sang it in the seventies; Newt Gingrich in the nineties; George W. Bush a decade ago. But we turned such atonal singing off because it resembled the sound of a political fingernail scratching on a dusty black board.
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson proposed and Congress passed legislation to create a Corporation for Public Broadcasting with a bipartisan board of directors to “provide support to non-commercial television and radio.” LBJ saw the strength of public television and radio in their local diversity with “every community challenged to contribute its best.” He said “non-commercial television and radio…even though supported by federal funds, must be absolutely free from any federal government interference over programming,” and insisted that the Corporation and local stations solicit funds from other sources private and public. “At its best,” he hoped, “public television would help make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens.” The first person LBJ nominated as a director was Republican Milton Eisenhower.
Today there are more than 350 Public Television stations and 1,000 public radio stations. These are critical assets for our people and our democracy.
Once upon a time in America—so long ago that most citizens today probably don’t know it—commercial broadcasters were subject to a fairness doctrine which required covering opposing political positions fairly; an equal time law which required that when presidents gave speeches, the opposing party got equal time to respond; and an obligation—even for top 40 rock stations—to give a certain amount of attention to news. Those days and laws are long gone.
Today the intense commercial broadcasting contest to attract eyeballs for ratings triggers a when-it-bleeds-it-leads doctrine for local news and a sensational pop magazine superficiality for most national news on networks.
Sure, we have 24 hour cable news channels. With them we rarely have to listen to anything that doesn’t echo what we agree with or want to hear shouted. On the right, FOX. On the left, CNN. On the further left, MSNBC. The place to find an hour of serious national and international news, and conversations among individuals with different viewpoints who talk with each other, rather than scream at each other, are PBS TV and NPR Radio.
No one else broadcasts the Metropolitan opera for free. Masterpiece Theatre for free. Without public television only those with thick enough wallets to buy expensive tickets to New York theaters could see and listen to shows like that. Public TV has educated millions of children and teens for the past half century—kids in cities and rural areas, your kids and mine, and those in Appalachian hills and urban ghettos.
Three things stand out most for me about the system of public broadcasting.
First, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and NPR represent the greatest public/private partnership in our nation’s history. The federal budget for the Corporation is $445 million. The private funds raised by the public television and radio stations total almost two billion, more than four dollars in individual and other private money for each federal dollar. If contributions by the states are included, six dollars are put up for each federal dollar. That’s a return on investment which would make any real estate mogul or Wall Street banker (even Donald Trump and his billionaire cabinet members) salivate.
Second, the hundreds of public TV and radio stations represent the most successful grass roots movement in our history. Thousands of men and women of every political and ideological shade, Republican and Democrat, liberal, libertarian, conservative and moderate, sit on local station boards. Millions of supporters in every corner of America contribute to keep these stations on the air. This is the kind of grass roots harmony our national candidates and parties, our representatives and senators, and our array of aspiring presidential candidates have so much to learn from.
Third, public broadcasting offers thoughtful news about what is happening in our world, lots of news we want to hear, some news we may not want to hear, and a magnificent effort to prove that what educates can also be exciting in the arts, athletics, antiquing, architecture, about world affairs and countries on every continent. Public broadcasting is available to every farmer on a tractor, every citizen with a cellphone, every home with a television set and car with a radio, whether in a village in Alaska, an inlet in Hawaii, a town in Iowa, Arizona, Idaho or Alabama, or an island off the coast of Maine or South Carolina.
Why has Congress rejected every attempt to defund public broadcasting? Because citizens at the grass roots enjoy it. They value its contribution to their quality of life. They know an incredible bargain for taxpayers when they see one.