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GUEST COMMENTARY: Cutting public media a reckless notion

Friday, December 31, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 12:08 p.m. CST, Friday, December 31, 2010

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.

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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.

 


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Comments

John Schultz December 31, 2010 | 12:23 a.m.

What is this "Institute of Policy Studies?" There are four pieces from this group in the Missourian archives, but I'm fairly certain I've seen a couple more. If it's not locally-produced, can we suggest some counterpoints such as John Stossel, the Cato Institute, or Reason Magazine?

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance December 31, 2010 | 8:36 a.m.

why? Here's their "counterpoint" Big government is bad, no taxpayer money for public media. The free market is better. Look at Faux News. There you go, I saved a whole column worth of space.

(Report Comment)
Robert Kimsey December 31, 2010 | 9:04 a.m.

Tim, you are making John's point for him. If that's really the best you can do, there is obviously a need for intelligent counterpoint.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 31, 2010 | 9:33 a.m.

I'd like to know the author's definition of "serious" in his phrase, "And for some communities, they are the only sources of serious local news and information."

I also do not believe publicly-financed "journalism" is as free of "influence" as the author would have us believe.

I listen to NPR, and channel 6 PBS out of Warrensburg is a great channel; the latter has some wonderful programing that includes one of my favs, NOVA.

But, I do not believe they should be financed by public taxes. If these forms of programing are good enough to have around, they are good enough to stand on their own. A gov't financed media is ripe for gov't manipulation. Potential conflicts of interest are generally frowned upon by we-the-public, and that's what we have here. Best not to go there.

PS: What does "dedicated to reforming the media" means to the Free Press (in the side bar of the author)?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 31, 2010 | 9:50 a.m.

Tim, if you think Stossel (although he appears on Fox), Cato, and Reason are necessarily the same as Fox, it's obvious you haven't read much of their work. Typical Tim for you though, thanks for popping and running again.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 31, 2010 | 12:47 p.m.

Meh. I can't remember the last time a PBS or NPR program gave me information that I hadn't already heard from the mainstream media. There are entire cable channels devoted to what "This Old House" covers, and the nation wouldn't be worse off if "Fresh Air" wound up as privately produced Podcast or simply went dark.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance December 31, 2010 | 1:34 p.m.

Yeah, it would be better if the flow of information is controlled by a few private individuals. Don't be fooled by this flowery conservative drivel. It is a shame that they have people of modest means that actually believes it. Folks stop going against your own self-interest.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 31, 2010 | 1:57 p.m.

Tim, speaking of control, how about last week's "NewsHour" segment on health car in Cuba? The Dec. 27 Wall Street Journal explains how PBS dropped the ball by simply parroting the Castro regime's claims instead of investigating those claims.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 1, 2011 | 4:56 p.m.

I consider it to be a vital educational tool as well as a check and balance against both commercial media and the three branches of your government.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 1, 2011 | 5:01 p.m.

You might also remember the Pink Floyd song where someone discusses having 13 channels of $#!+ on the TV to choose from. With new technology we now have around 200 and I fail to note an improvement. Support public media.

(Report Comment)
Yves Montclear January 1, 2011 | 6:07 p.m.

Paul, are you OK? You seem to be off your medication.

Your usual bitter wit is not working in those last posts.

Your OK, on this New Years Day?

I'm just checking...if you need help, we can get you some help.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 1, 2011 | 7:32 p.m.

Are you disputing the fact that most of the stuff that corporations broadcast on your television is $#!+? Because if you are then I say you might be over-medicated. And I don't know if I can help you. Perhaps you could clarify.

(Report Comment)
Darrell Wyatt January 2, 2011 | 9:24 a.m.

Although NPR is fairly good at it, most viewer supported public radio and television does not make a practice of trying to form opinion with hand picked right or left leaning content. If human interest, diversity and real news is what you like, then public broadcasting is worthy of your and my support. But, to question Josh Stearns and his associations because they may not conform to the conservative way is a myopic view at best. The implications are obvious, and the Rovian tactic of “diminish the strong points” never fails to entertain both pro and con.

Michael wrote; PS: What does "dedicated to reforming the media" means to the Free Press (in the side bar of the author)?

Not speaking for the Free Press, but I would like to think it means that hyperbolic bs being passed off as news is in need of exposure.

(Report Comment)

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