Brought to You By the Trump Budget: Endless PBS Pledge Drives
Policy + Politics

Brought to You By the Trump Budget: Endless PBS Pledge Drives


If you think public broadcasting pledge drives are annoying now, just wait until the Trump administration’s proposed budget goes into effect. The plan proposed Thursday guts various government agencies, from the State Department to the Environmental Protection Agency, but it also eliminates completely many others, among them the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

CPB provides grants and other funding to public television and radio stations across the country and is also the umbrella organization for well-known broadcast entities like the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.

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The corporation’s grants to independently owned radio and television public broadcasting stations provide a very significant share of their funding in most cases, particularly in rural areas where government funding is scarce and the opportunity to recruit private sector sponsors is more limited.

Many members of the Republican Party have, for decades, harbored the desire to eliminate CPB and the programming it supports. Their reasons generally fall into one of two areas: They object to the idea of the government funding broadcast media that competes with the private sector and/or they believe that the programs supported by CPB funding tend to be biased toward a more liberal point of view.

However, on the question of competition, officials point out that most of the stations CPB supports are in largely underserved parts of the country where corporate media sees little upside to an investment in newsgathering or other local programming.

The complaints of bias may feel more justified. On the whole, the audience for CPB supported programming skews more Democratic and liberal than the rest of the country, However, NPR, PBS, and the stations that accept CBP funding are all bound by requirements that they balance their coverage and do not take political positions. Additionally, NPR and PBS tend to score very well in surveys asking people what news sources they view as trustworthy.

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Others have argued against the CPB on fiscal grounds, saying that cutting it would simply save the taxpayer money, but in the context of the Trump administration’s budget proposal, those claims ring a little hollow. The CPB had a budget of $445 million in 2016, equal to 0.07 percent of the administration’s proposed Pentagon budget, and only 0.8 percent of the $54 billion increase the Trump budget would give to defense spending next year.

In a statement released Thursday, CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison defended her organization.

“Public media is one of America’s best investments,” she said. “At approximately $1.35 per citizen per year, it pays huge dividends to every American. From expanding opportunity, beginning with proven children’s educational content to providing essential news and information as well as ensuring public safety and homeland security through emergency alerts, this vital investment strengthens our communities. It is especially critical for those living in small towns and in rural and underserved areas.”

Some of the bigger names in the public broadcasting universe, including NPR and PBS, have strong private sector and philanthropic partnerships that provide a considerable share of their funding. But revenue from member stations that buy their programming would be slashed by the funding cuts, leading to what Harrison described as an inevitable disappearance of public programming.

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“There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services,” she said. “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.”

Perhaps Harrison is wrong, and there would be enough support from the public to support the stations that CPB now helps fund. But it would take an awful lot of tote bags and promotional coffee mug giveaways to fill what promises to be a funding gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars.