PBS faces clear, present danger from threat to eliminate funding

Filed under: Opinion |

Debate in the media and in Congress recently has centered on the issue of “balance” in public broadcasting.

Some allege public broadcasting has a liberal bias and should be punished for it, despite a recent study commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that shows public broadcasting is perceived to be fair and balanced.

Further, a February Roper Poll shows that the American public considers PBS to be the nation’s most trusted institution and one of the most valuable tax-supported services, second only to U.S. military defense.

Yet, several weeks ago, we learned of a critical situation in the U.S. House where there is a clear and present danger to federal funding for public broadcasting.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education and Related Agencies proposed almost $200 million in funding cuts for public broadcasting.

And, that’s just for starters. The report continues that public broadcasting should be put on a glide path to zero funding by 2008. While the Obey-Lowey bill introduced to the subcommittee as an amendment may soften the blow, it is clear that public broadcasting is facing serious funding cuts.

These actions of the House subcommittee are, in the words of John Lawson of the Association of Public Television Stations, “nothing less than a direct attack on public television and radio. They are also an attack on some of the last, locally controlled and independent media voices in our country. This is clearly not how a democracy is supposed to run.”

I agree that this is not in the spirit of a free society and the concepts upon which our Constitution was founded.

The first in a series of Draconian cuts comes in the form of a 25 percent rescission from the advance appropriation made to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2004 for Community Service Grants and system support in fiscal year~2006.

Not only is it a serious blow to public broadcasting, but it also signals that promises made one year by Congress will be not be honored when the funding is due.

In perhaps its most punitive move, the subcommittee also proposed eliminating all funding for the Ready to Learn program.

This is a targeted elimination of a successful educational program that serves tens of millions of American kids. Ready to Learn consistently receives strong bipartisan support–even the budget submitted by the Bush Administration recommended level funding of $23 million.

So, there clearly was no cost-cutting mandate that would justify what the subcommittee did. Rather, it seems clear that this action was in response to the “Postcards from Buster” controversy of a few months ago.

The subcommittee continued its attack by proposing to eliminate targeted funding for the federally mandated digital infrastructure conversion, and for interconnection of public broadcasting stations nationwide.

In sum, all of the cuts proposed by the subcommittee would reduce total federal funding for public broadcasting through the fiscal year 2006 Labor-HHS appropriations bill by more than $200 million.

The attack on public broadcasting isn’t limited to the Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee, as the House appropriations subcommittee that funds a public broadcasting federal equipment-replacement program has proposed eliminating it as well.

PTFP, as it is called, received $21.6 million in fiscal year~2005, but was appropriated no funding for grants in the new fiscal year. Instead, the subcommittee appropriated only $2 million to cover costs associated with ending the program.

Further, the funding intended to help public television meet the challenge of the federally mandated digital conversion is also on the chopping block; a move that could leave rural America without digital public television for a long time to come.

With all of the world changing, and with important legislation currently before it, this issue might not be on the radar screens of most members of Congress until a vote is due.

Meanwhile, it is time for viewers, listeners and members of public broadcasting to make their voices heard by calling their members of Congress immediately.

James Morgese is president and general manager of Rocky Mountain PBS.