Jonathan C. Abbott and Charles Kravetz

Listen up on public broadcasting

By Jonathan C. Abbott and Charles Kravetz
February 17, 2011

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PENDING A vote in Congress this week, public broadcasting could cease to exist.

The House of Representatives will consider a budget resolution calling for the elimination of funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn funds National Public Radio, Public Broadcasting Service, and public stations across the country, including WBUR and WGBH in Boston.

Does the federal deficit need to be addressed? Of course. But gutting public radio and public television is not the answer. Eliminating the government’s investment in public broadcasting would reduce the $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit by less than three ten-thousandths of one percent. But it would have a devastating impact on local communities nationwide.

For $1.35 per year per American — less than a cup of coffee — people in cities and towns across the United States benefit from public television, radio, and Web content. They get news and public affairs programs that promote understanding of the issues and are treated not as consumers but as citizens. They also get jobs: about 21,000 nationwide.

Public broadcasting is not a “luxury we can’t afford,’’ as some have said. A strong, community-centered public media service for all Americans is a vital part of our democracy. For the seventh year in a row, the Roper Poll has found public broadcasting to be the most trusted and unbiased institution among nationally known organizations, the most trusted source of news and public affairs among broadcast and cable sources — across all ideological and partisan lines — and the most educational media for children. Only national defense scores higher than public broadcasting as an appropriate expenditure of public funds.

Fully 170 million Americans use public media each month: parents, teachers, viewers, listeners, and Web visitors. They connect to public broadcasting’s educational riches through 368 public TV stations and 934 public radio stations — some of the last locally owned and operated media outlets in the country — as well as many hundreds of online services, community events, and grassroots activities.

Each federal dollar provides critical seed money that public broadcasters leverage to raise more than six more dollars from local sources. As crucial as CPB funding is to stations in major metropolitan areas like ours, the situation is even more dire for smaller stations, where federal funding truly is the life blood.

Already weakened by the economy and in many cases also facing drastic cuts in state funding, these small, rural public stations will be crippled. They’ll be unable to address vital local issues — and will be unable to bring their viewers and listeners national programs like “Morning Edition,’’ “PBS NewsHour,’’ and “Sesame Street.’’ If they cease to exist, their audiences will lose out on the education, culture, and window on the world that public media provide.

Some argue that PBS and NPR stations would be better off without federal funding, particularly as they embrace the journalistic role of government watchdog. But decades of high-quality journalism argue against this view. Public television and radio have proven themselves non-partisan, independent voices that readily examine and critique the place of government in our lives.

That vital work is ever more important as newspapers across the country fold and thousands of journalists are laid off. Public funding has actually strengthened NPR and PBS, allowing them to weather the turmoil in journalism. Without federal funds, NPR and PBS face cutbacks, layoffs, and elimination of vital programs.

There have been efforts to de-fund public broadcasting in the past. But the challenge posed in Congress is more serious than previous efforts.

Just as the United States continues to fund public schools and public libraries, the need remains to preserve a spot on our airwaves for media that matters, free to all takers. The House should vote no on defunding public broadcasting.

Jonathan C. Abbott is president and CEO of WGBH. Charles Kravetz is general manager of WBUR.