Jun 8 2006

CPB Funding Threatened…Again

Time to fight for an independent funding source

On June 7, Congressional Republicans launched their latest assault on public broadcasting when a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to cut $115 million from the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The cuts would affect PBS, NPR and other non-commercial media like Pacifica Radio.

The latest GOP attack is a reminder that without fundamental changes in the way it is funded, public broadcasting will continue to be vulnerable to the political whims of Congress. This is the second time in less than nine months that the GOP has attempted to slash the CPB budget. As FAIR pointed out the last time (10/3/05), if public broadcasting defenders continue to merely fight to protect the CPB budget, the same potential for using the CPB appropriation process as a tool to force public broadcasting further to the right will still exist, and public broadcasting will have to be “saved” again and again—most likely at the cost of yet more concessions to the right.

Over the years, FAIR’s studies have consistently found a pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt in PBS’s and NPR’s national news and public affairs programming (Extra!, 9-10/93, 9-10/99, 5-6/04). If the CPB’s government funding contributes to the homogenization and stifling of diverse voices on what is meant to be independent media, how much effort should be made to fight to protect that funding?

As long as there has been public broadcasting, there have been calls to create an alternative funding structure for PBS and NPR that would replace the CPB. Different fiscal schemes have been suggested, from selling unused spectrum to taxing commercial advertising or television sets (as Britain does for the BBC).

One such proposal, drafted by FAIR founder Jeff Cohen and Vassar professor William Hoynes and promoted by the group Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), envisions an independent trust, perhaps funded by a tax on advertising or commercial broadcast license sales, that could generate $1 billion in annual funding for a robust, truly independent public broadcasting system. While that may sound ambitious, the trust recommendation pointed to some hopeful signs in recent history:

In 1998, House Telecommunications Subcommittee leaders Billy Tauzin and Edward Markey designed a bill (later withdrawn) to create a permanent PBS trust fund, abolish the CPB and phase out commercial underwriting messages. The Gore Commission on the social responsibilities of digital broadcasters strongly recommends that Congress create a trust fund for public television and eliminate “enhanced underwriting” by corporations. A December 1998 poll by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates found an overwhelming 79 percent of the American public favoring a proposal to require commercial broadcasters to pay 5 percent of their revenues into a fund to support public broadcasting programming.

Would creating an independent revenue source for public broadcasting be hard work? Definitely. But in the absence of such a fundamental overhaul, advocates who want the public broadcasting system to be free of political interference and open to multiple points of view are doomed to be disappointed again and again.