Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The War On Public Radio

“Republicans and the new Administration need to demonstrate that we take our fiscal responsibility seriously...That’s why I have reintroduced two pieces of legislation to permanently defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. CPB received $445 million during Fiscal Year 2016, and this money could be put to better use rebuilding our military and enhancing our national security.”
  Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO-05)

During the first presidential debate of the 2012 election cycle Mitt Romney gave Twitter mana from heaven when he said, “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.” That was a little over four years ago, Big Bird (like many others who depend on The Cooperation for Public Broadcasting) breathed a sigh of relief when Mitt Romney was defeated that November, but that wasn’t the beginning or end of the Republican war on access to Public television and radio.

On January 31st, Congressman Doug Lamborn, from Colorado’s 5th Congressional District introduced two bills H.R. 726 and H.R. 727 to defund NPR and the CPB. H.R. 726 is a bill that, in his words, “Prohibits public radio stations from using federal funds to purchase programming from and/or pay dues to NPR.” In fiscal year 2015 NPR received $81 million dollars from programming fees and dues. The second part of this bill would prohibit direct Federal funding of NPR which would cut another $5 million dollars from their coffers. The congressman’s bill would cut over 40% of NPR’s operational budget. H.R. 727 would end all federal funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2019. With two pieces of legislation, one Congressman with a simple majority in both houses could give President Trump a bill that could permanently destroy public access television and radio in America.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has been in the ideological and fiscal crosshairs of the Republican party since its inception in 1967. In 1971 President Nixon denied National Public Radio (NPR) space in the White House press room; this was followed by a 1972 veto of funds allocated to the CPB and the firing of top PBS officials. President Nixon almost killed Public radio and television at a time when neither entity was a thorn in his side. NPR (either out of good journalism or spite) gave voice to the antiwar movement and provided extensive coverage of the Washington Post’s investigations into the Watergate break in and cover up. The national media’s reluctance to cross the Nixon administration gave NPR legitimacy with their core audience, but also to those who opposed the war. NPR barley survived the Nixon administration. NPR didn’t get White House access until Nixon resigned.

For the two years of Ford administration and the four years of the Carter administration, The CPB, NPR, and PBS lived without the threat of elimination. That changed when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. President Reagan’s free market principles fueled his push eliminate federal funding to the CPB. It’s a mathematical fact that Ronald Reagan tripled the federal debt over the course of his two terms, yet his “fiscal conservatism” led him to believe that NPR and PBS shouldn’t be subsidized by the federal government and should fend for themselves in the free market. In 1983 President Reagan asked congress to cut 20% of the funds allocated for CPB funding. These cuts hurt NPR and some of the smaller stations that were heavily dependent on federal dollars. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting survived because listeners got involved and picked up the slack financially. I don’t believe there’s enough evidence for one to be optimistic about NPR and CPB surviving the 115th Congress and the Trump administration. 

Conservative arguments for defunding the CPB are compelling if you hear them without any context. CPB funding falls under the discretionary spending portion of the budget. In 2015 the $445 million dollars appropriated for the CPB (which is the same amount allocated for FY 2017) wasn’t a big enough percent of the budget to make most of the pie charts I researched. A person would have to be disingenuous or terribly bad at math to believe the Federal Budget can be brought back into balance by eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB funding costs taxpayers $1.35 per year. This kind of ideological budget cutting is like a shopaholic trying to balance their personal budget by not buying a pack of chewing gum once a year instead of cutting back on shoes, slacks, and sport coats. The worst part of Congressman Lamborn’s argument is the notion that another $445 million dollars added to the military budget would make anyone safer.

In 2011, the 112th House of Representatives passed a version of Congressman Lamborn’s defund NPR bill on a partisan vote 228-192. There’s no doubt in my mind house Republicans will support this legislation again; this puts even more pressure on Senate Democrats to keep these bills from reaching the President’s desk. Senate Democrats have to vote in unison against H.R. 726 and H.R. 727, and peel off some of the same Republicans who helped them kill this legislation in 2011. The confirmation vote for Betsy DeVos ended with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie. The fact that so many Republicans voted to confirm someone so woefully unqualified to be the Secretary of Education doesn’t bode well for NPR and the CPB. This leaves Senate Democrats with zero room for error if NPR and the CPB are going to survive.

Information is easier to get than ever, yet we’re being dragged towards a post-truth/“alternative facts” reality where truth is a subjective concept instead of an objective one. We have an administration that makes decisions based on how they perceive the very facts they make up. A crowd of a couple hundred thousand can become a million plus, lies are capped off with strong exclamation points designed to end debate, and when in doubt: they fabricate terrorist attacks and then blame the media for not covering them.

NPR has been a solid voice for truth and reason inside to beltway. I know progressives who were dissatisfied with their coverage of the Iraq war and their concerns were warranted, but this has to be an issue the left can unite on. This administration's animus towards the media doesn’t bode well for the future of free public access to information. NPR is just one front in this fight. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds over 1,100 public radio stations; some of these stations are the sole source provider of radio content in their area. Defunding the CPB is another example of Republicans enacting policies that hurt their constituents. Many of the rural radio stations that rely on CPB funding would have to make major cuts in payroll, programing, and services to survive; those will be the lucky ones: others will be forced to close their doors. During an emergency radio has always been a reliable way to get important information out to rural communities. Coordination between emergency management teams, first responders, and the community is a priceless service provided by community radio stations, yet this relationship is in jeopardy to save less than one tenth of one percent of the Federal Budget. This doesn’t make sense.

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