The Republican Congress has recently taken to attacking discretionary spending with a buzzsaw, and one of the centerpiece cuts in its proposed budget is the elimination of government funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The move is merely the latest development in a long, bitter relationship between public television and the political right.
Though the CPB is an inviting, low-hanging fruit for budget hawks to target, cutting its funding is a politically harmful move, not only because the CPB enjoys broad public support, but also because public broadcasting is aligned with many classically conservative ideals.
Public television serves an important role in our society, one that is difficult to quantify monetarily.
Educational shows like Sesame Street teach children important values such as respect for others; public interest journalism from the likes of NewsHour and Frontline is the standard of unbiased reporting free of any agenda.
These programs are pillars of public television, an institution portrayed by many as a bastion of liberal propaganda. An editorial in the Washington Times called the CPB “a Great Society-era big-government dinosaur.” Opponents portray it as a parasite feeding off taxpayer dollars, or “the Muppet Lobby,” in the words of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Other conservative representatives are more guarded in their criticism.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) professes to be a loyal fan of NPR and PBS, but said America cannot afford the $451 million that go to the CPB every year. Apparently it has become politically safe to say “viewers like you” should pick up the tab instead of Uncle Sam.
The CPB would be a valuable head to hang on the wall for Republicans seeking to appease their political base.
But although budget-obsessed tea partiers might see PBS as a neon target for drastic cuts, public television is a fundamental element in modern American society, and it deserves our public investment.
The big networks used to be bound by law to carry public interest programming in exchange for the right to broadcast on the publicly owned airwaves.
Networks gradually threw off those shackles as they realized the real profit was found in TV’s ability to sell, rather than in its status as a service.
They learned some customers are more valuable than others and began to value the demographics that were most susceptible to commercial messages. TV content became homogenous and less innovative.
Public television, for the most part, never traveled down that dangerous, slippery slope. Public interest news shows continued to cover issues they considered valuable, instead of fixating on the color of an Oscar nominee’s dress or Charlie Sheen’s mental state.
PBS will survive defunding by the federal government, but it might lose its public mission in the process. Profitable shows like Sesame Street and Nova will continue, but their success will not subsidize public interest programs such as Frontline and will not balance the books of small rural stations that rely on federal funds to serve their communities.
Public broadcasting has become an inexorable and priceless pillar of American life, and if we sacrifice it for the purpose of a few saved pennies, we will have sold a piece of ourselves in the process.
Daniel Killam is a junior majoring in environmental studies.