Republicans in Congress have renewed their attack on public broadcasting, proposing that federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), currently at about $445 million annually, be entirely eliminated. CPB funnels money to National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). I've been reading through the commentary advocating the zeroing out, and I've been struck, once again, by the anger and disdain that NPR and PBS generate in some quarters. Stripping that away, the case for not funding them seems to focus on two specific claims: That the programming of the broadcast organizations is politically slanted--to the Left--and therefore shouldn't be funded by the government (the firing of Juan Williams is sometimes held up as proof of this bias); and that neither PBS nor NPR supply a distinct public service which is not already available through the market. In addition, there's the more general objection that no media programming should be funded by taxpayers; NPR and PBS should instead be supported entirely by voluntary individual and corporate contributions (currently it's a mix of private and public support).
Transparency before going further: I host a program on a regional NPR station, and while I have an interest in seeing that program continue, I am not paid by NPR or the local station.
On the supposed Left bias, I guess I can see a slight liberal tinge, in two respects, neither of which is surprising or unique. First, it's probably the case, as it is with a lot of media organizations (absent FOX), that the employees and the talent tend to be more liberal than the average citizen. It's not clear that this means the content of the news broadcasts is decidedly more liberal, however. Such a bent might come through, at the edges, at the moments when it's especially hard for the personal views of the broadcasters not to become intertwined with what they're doing on the air--for example perhaps Steve Inskeep's recent interview with Donald Rumsfeld, which was clearly more aggressive than his usual chat with a guest. Rumsfeld stirred up some emotions for Inskeep--at least it seemed that way to me.
Where it's easier to see a liberal slant is in feature story selection, as NPR and to a lesser extent PBS search for the less reported, more quirky, and more diversity-oriented topics, and those are almost by definition less conservative (see NPR's mission statement below).
But the renewed attack on CPB funding got me thinking about the BBC, which I consume as my primary news source in the weeks during the summer when I teach a program in London.
Granted, the BBC and the CPB have entirely different histories, reflecting the two nations' different views toward regulating the market and the kinds of things rightly considered to be within the public trust. They're also structured differently, with the BBC being more centralized, and NPR more federated (again reflecting the nations' political systems).
And relative to the CPB, the BBC is "massively" funded, as the Brits would say, to the tune of approximately $5.8 billion annually.
But there are similarities.
The BBC is funded by the government, but it is not a state media outlet--like NPR and PBS it is independently operated.
They have similarly worded missions. For the BBC: To inform, educate, and entertain. For PBS: To educate, inform, and inspire. For NPR: To create a more informed public challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.
The BBC attracts criticisms similar to those of the CPB, and the mandatory license fee on televisions that funds it is a constant source of political debate.
Christopher Cook, a media observer and critic (and also my colleague in London), notes that the political criticism the BBC receives comes from both the Left and the Right, but like the CPB, its most virulent criticism is found within conservative camps. And like the CPB, a lot of that criticism is rooted in the perception that the personnel at the BBC are to the Left of the average citizen, even if the news coverage is not directly slanted.
Yet the argument to entirely eliminate the funding for the BBC remains a fringe position. For example, David Cameron's Conservative/Lib-Dem government recently cut the BBC's budget by 16 percent over a four year period, while the average cut to government departments was 19 percent.
So how does the BBC maintain its safe position as a government-funded, public news organization, while the CPB is regularly tied to the railroad tracks? According to Cook, the three most important reasons for the BBC's strength are: First, a broad band of viewers and listeners--the electorate--like it and trust it; second, over the years it has become one of Britain's national institutions and therefore a sacred cow, so attacks on it are politically dangerous (think Social Security perhaps); and third, politicians recognize that their best bet for having politics taken seriously and covered in depth as a broadcast topic is the continued existence of the BBC.
Clearly NPR, PBS, and by extension the CPB never reached the threshold of viewership and support in our network and cable dominated landscape to become a similarly defining national institution, and their appeal has always been more limited. But perhaps our politicians are a bit different as well--it may be that beyond the Left-Right debate, having politics taken seriously and covered in depth is not seen by them as something in their collective self-interest, or our collective self-interest, and this may tell us something important about our political culture.
Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.
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