Congress Must Not Pull the Plug on PBS and NPR

February 18th, 2011

My article, which appeared in the New York Daily News on Monday, February 7th, 2011

http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2011/02/07/2011-02-07_save_big_bird_nova_jim_lehrer.html

This month, there are four bills pending in Congress that would eliminate federal funding for the most trusted institution in America. For the last seven years, according to the annual Roper opinion poll, more Americans put their trust in this institution than any other. In 2010, it ranked two times higher than the criminal justice system, 2-1/2 times higher than network television and a whopping 7-1/2 times higher than Congress. One hundred and eleven million Americans use it every month, yet the U.S. spends less per capita on this institution than any other First World country spends on the equivalent. I am talking, of course, about public television.

Why cut off funds for PBS? In a recession and with unprecedented national debt, so the argument goes, America simply cannot afford to spend money on anything but the basics. Surely we can’t afford Big Bird when we have things like the military and the highway system to pay for first. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who introduced one of the bills targeting public broadcasting, has said “It is time for Congress to prioritize its spending to our nation’s most pressing needs. With the national debt over $13 trillion, the government cannot continue to fund nonessential services.”

But Lamborn presents a false choice. Combined funding for PBS and NPR is about $425 million per year, which might seem like a lot until you compare it to the rest of the federal budget. In Washington, $425 million will get you about 10 feet of an aircraft carrier, or less than a single day in Iraq. It costs $850 million just to staff and run the Senate for one year. For the cost of the AIG bailout, we could have funded public broadcasting at current levels for 155 years. Defunding America’s most trusted institution for such a tiny savings is a very bad deal for the American people.

So what’s really behind the current threat to PBS and NPR? The same thing that’s been behind all past threats: partisan political pressure.

Threats to defund PBS are nothing new. Richard Nixon, convinced that PBS news programming was biased against his administration, not only vetoed the 1972 budget for PBS, but used his influence to effectively pull all PBS news and public affairs programming from the entire 1972-73 TV season. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich famously tried to defund public media in the 1990s, claiming that federal money should not fund a “liberal” media outlet. Bill Clinton reportedly used his influence at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and PBS, to tone down criticism of the U.S. and NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

Each time the threat is the same: Make shows in line with the party in power, or we’ll cut your funding. Like censorship, budget bullying is a cowardly thing to do. Congress should have the courage to fund public broadcasting with no strings attached, no matter who is in power. That would be the best way to assure that public TV and radio continue free of political influence from either the left or the right. Fortunately for those of us in this decade, threats in past decades have always been called off amid huge popular outcry. Let’s hope this time is no different.

But let’s imagine politicians really are going after PBS to trim the budget. What does this say about how much Washington respects the values that PBS stands for, and which so many Americans share: trust, excellence and universal access to culture and education?

During my 20 years as president of Channel 13, the nation’s flagship PBS station, I received tens of thousands of letters from parents thanking me for the safe haven my station provided for their kids, for being the one media destination where children can always find shows to help them learn and grow, free of any commercial agenda. I got letters from immigrants, grateful for programs that helped them learn about, respect and become Americans. I remember a woman in the last months of her life who painted all the numbers on her remote control black except for the “one” and the “three.” My daughter, who is a hospice nurse, has said to me, “You will never know how many dying people cling to your station in their last days.”

Tough times are when the people’s government should defend common values, not abandon them. When Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that created public broadcasting, he said, “It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth … we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit.” By eliminating funding for PBS and NPR, Congress would be telling the American people and the world just the opposite.