Congressional House Republicans hate soft spoken news reports, jazz music, and Big Bird. They want to cut all funding to PBS and NPR, America’s public television and public radio. They say it’s to fight the deficit and save the taxpayers. Considering that public media funding accounts for .0001% of the federal budget, or $1.39 per tax payer each year, I think the answer is a little more complicated. But before I bash those Republicans, I must note that PBS and NPR have some of their own problems, and their defenders aren’t helping any with hyperbolic cries of “oh no! Democracy will die without public media!”
All things considered (yes, bad pun), PBS and NPR have a lot to offer. Sesame Street’s a classic. Thomas the Train, too. Frontline may be the best investigative journalism show on TV. Nobody could possibly hate Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. And while Masterpiece Theatre may not be my cup of tea (if I’m watching Judy Dench, it better be a James Bond movie), I can recognize it as quality art. But the problem is that outside of their children’s programming, most shows on PBS and NPR, while very good, are still aimed only at a niche market.
Yes, public media in this country has become ghettoized. The target audience, whether intentional or not, is liberal intellectuals. It caters to a certain type of person (think a gray haired man with a ponytail and tweed jacket). And there is nothing wrong with this, per se. PBS and NPR should produce quality programming, and offer quality news, for college professors and freelance writers and organic food shoppers. And I mean that with no snark (okay, maybe a little). But liberal intellectuals are not the only Americans (or the only Americans who matter). When many people feel as if PBS offers little for them, or feel that NPR caters to a certain niche, it’s no wonder why some congresspersons see it as a luxury not worthy of the average citizen’s hard earned tax dollars, especially in this bad economy.
What defenders of public broadcasting should do is encourage more funding so that public media can broaden and even expand to multiple TV channels and radio stations, like in European countries. In Britain everyone watches the BBC. It’s as popular (and diverse) as network television. Defenders of American public media shoot themselves in the foot by constantly bashing (usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly) other forms of media to try and show how important NPR and PBS are. In other words, when House Republicans say PBS is too liberal, defenders holler back, “yup, it is super liberal and we’re damned proud of it.” Not the way to win converts. Here are some scare quotes from a Save PBS/NPR petition site that illustrate this point:
“Public media is one of the last bulwarks against the corporate media…public media is the only available high-quality news and public affairs programming…without public media, corporate media monopolies would increase their already large control…corporate power is a threat to our democracy.”
It’s a messiah story. NPR and PBS are the saviors standing alone against CBS and NBC and ABC and wicked wicked (oh so wicked) FOX. Without PBS, television news will become E! Talk Soup. Without NPR, the radio will become Rush Limbaugh. And then our democracy will become a dictatorship run by Wal-Mart and their hypnotizing commercials (always a convenient bad guy). It’s a great story, but there’s one tiny little problem. It’s just not true.
Believe it or not, quality media does exist outside of PBS and NPR. There are some awesome TV shows on network and cable like Community and Mad Men. We have great news programs like 60 Minutes and Nightline. We have excellent newspapers like the New York Times (and they’re liberal, too!). These will exist with or without public media. Public media defenders should stand up for PBS and NPR not by condemning commercial TV and radio, but by promoting the virtues of public media, not as the enemy or alternative to network TV and cable, but as another worthwhile option. Don’t say “CBS stinks.” Say “I like CBS, too, but why don’t you join me for some PBS, as well?”
Meanwhile, House Republicans say we don’t have money for public media. They are busy using tax dollars to sponsor three NASCAR teams.