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Globe Editorial

Dems should defend arts, PBS; private funds can fortify NPR

February 24, 2011

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ON SOME level, it seems unjust to bring federal cultural programs into the broader discussion of the nation’s budget deficit. For when Republicans thunder about government spending, and then pick on a puny target like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, they undercut their own rhetoric: The Defense Department and future Medicare and Social Security growth account for the vast majority of projected spending, and any honest deficit hunter has to aim for the big game.

And yet supporters of smaller programs can’t simply insist that anything more modest than the Pentagon budget remain off-limits for discussion. In a year when even President Obama is calling for deep cuts in antipoverty efforts, Democrats need to make hard decisions about which programs to fight for and which to give up. In the cultural realm, this means distinguishing critical arts initiatives that require public funding from equally valuable ones, such as National Public Radio, that can survive — and may even thrive — on their own.

To be sure, frugality was a minor motive when the House Appropriations Committee rushed to zero out the $531 million line item for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The comparatively tiny item was a fat GOP target, especially after NPR’s ill-advised decision to fire commentator Juan Williams for saying he feared Muslims on airplanes. Never mind that the $2.5 million NPR receives in direct federal grants is a sliver of its own budget and barely a speck in the federal one.

Yet the small size of the allocation cuts both ways. The national NPR organization, with its millions of loyal listeners, could do quite well on its own. Meanwhile, public broadcasting money does go to member stations, amounting to an average of 10 percent of their budgets — a vital lifeline, insists NPR, to stations in underserved markets. But NPR could help ease the burden on smaller markets by adjusting its dues charges.

For a news service, there’s a major upside to being free from government support. The best guarantee of a fearless media is its own income stream. Despite the well-documented woes of the news industry over the last decade, the means of private support — through subscriptions, advertising, and sponsorship — can still sustain a vibrant Fourth Estate. NPR may have mishandled Williams, but it should be accountable to its listeners, not mischievous members of Congress. The radio network is among the jewels of the American media, and its fans should, and surely will, step up to make certain it survives a weaning of government support.

That’s not a realistic option, though, for other perennial GOP targets, such as the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Democrats should be willing to draw a line separating those initiatives, which require public support, from more discretionary ones, such as NPR. PBS, the main beneficiary of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, falls in the middle. While its “NewsHour’’ should rely on private contributions, PBS’s cultural and documentary offerings require support, even in a bare-bones budget.

Unlike news, arts and humanities lack an adequate private lifeline. For all of civilization, governments have supported the arts as an expression of national culture and identity. Many long-extinct monarchies are remembered today only for the symphonies, operas, paintings, and theater pieces that they fostered.

The United States has been laggard in its funding of the arts, with some conservatives casting a critical eye on the occasional offensive project. But taxpayers would be well-served by letting artists decide which projects are worthy. A thriving arts community will be the best reward — for the country and its culture.

Republicans should stop pretending that federal cultural funding is any significant cause of the nation’s budget woes, and they should stop letting their ideology persuade them that enhancing America’s cultural heritage is a frivolous amenity. Still, the fiscal pressures on the federal government will only increase. Democrats can avoid a bad alternative — watching as all cultural efforts are slashed or abolished indiscriminately — by identifying which of the programs that they cherish will always require public support, and which can count on their own fans to step up.