COLUMBIA — Since NPR terminated its contract with political analyst Juan Williams, it has been open hunting season on the broadcasting network in Washington with a handful of lawmakers and political pundits launching an all-out assault to take down public media.
This isn't the first time that politicians have set their sights on public broadcasting and called to de-fund it entirely. Indeed, NPR, PBS and CPB — the independent Corporation for Public Broadcasting — have dodged this bullet many times before, thanks in part to broad-based support from both sides of the political aisle and a huge outcry from the tens of millions of people who enjoy public media every day.
Advocates for cutting public broadcasting's already miniscule $430 million federal appropriation argue that it will help reduce the nation's looming deficit. What they never mention, however, is what we would lose by making these reckless cuts.
Most of this federal funding supports more than 1,300 local public TV and radio stations, not the big national umbrella organizations. While some of that money does flow back to NPR and PBS, the reality is that cutting the CPB budget means local viewers and listeners will take the hardest hit. Local PBS and NPR affiliates reach more than 98 percent of American households. And for some communities, they are the only sources of serious local news and information.
A recent census of public radio found that local stations employ more than 2,000 journalists and engage an additional 2,000 people in citizen journalism efforts. At a time when commercial newsrooms around the country are shedding thousands of jobs, both public radio and TV have announced new investments in local reporting.
In tough economic times, public broadcasters are embracing their mission to serve local communities. The response has been profound. Over the last five years, NPR's audience has grown almost 10 percent. Year after year, public television is ranked as one of the most trusted sources for news and information by citizens across the country and across the political spectrum. In polls and surveys, Americans consistently rank public broadcasting as one of the best expenditures of taxpayer dollars, second only to national defense.
Public media are also an increasingly vital resource for arts and educational programming. Public radio and television are often the only place left on the dial for independent and community arts and music. Generations have grown up watching incredible commercial-free children's programming, from "Mister Rogers" to "Sesame Street."
Here's what's really at stake in this debate: Those who want to cut funding for public broadcasting want to foreclose on "Sesame Street" and put a bull's-eye on Big Bird. Ironically, by choosing to target public media, political partisans and cable news pundits have illustrated exactly why we need public media in America.
Our media system is transforming at a staggering pace. More than ever before, we need independent, influence-free journalism — free of commercial influence, political influence and government influence. We should invest more, not less, to get it.
Right now, America's investment in public media is literally pocket change. We spend just $1.43 per capita each year on public media. Meanwhile Canadians spend $27, the British spend $86, and the Danes spend $110. The results are clear. According to a recent study of 14 democratic nations, public media consistently provide more and higher quality public affairs programming and a greater diversity of perspectives than their commercial counterparts.
If we want to address excesses in government spending and rein in the kind of corporate misdeeds that led to the economic crisis we are facing today, we should put more journalists on the beat, not fewer. Many commercial media outlets have failed to do the job. Public media are poised to take on the challenges we face, but we need to protect and expand their funding.
Josh Stearns is the associate program director for Free Press, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming the media. This column was distributed through OtherWords.org, a project for the Institute of Policy Studies.