Declaration of (public broadcast) independence
Story by Chris Graham
It’s spring, which means it’s probably time for Congress to threaten to cut funding for public broadcasting.
A move by a congressional subcommittee to slash funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that was reversed last week by the House Appropriations Committee had people again discussing the merits of taxpayer funding for PBS and NPR. The move also ramped up talk concerning a proposal advanced by two progressive citizens groups that would scrap the current system in favor of establishing a public trust with its own dedicated funding sources and an independent oversight panel that would get public television and public radio out from under the foot of Congress and the White House.
“Certainly people should be fighting for funding for public broadcasting – PBS, NPR and all of the other projects that are reliant on public funding. The way we see it, though, is that calling for continued funding without calling for a radical change in how the funding is done, what you’re doing is you’re fighting almost a war of attrition,” said Steve Rendall of the New York City-based Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which is working with the Pittsburgh-based Center for Independent Public Broadcasting to win support for the idea of creating an independent public-broadcasting trust.
“The goal would be to make U.S. public broadcasting the equal of public broadcasting in almost every modern country – and that is relatively independent from commercial and political pressures,” said Jerry Starr, the executive director of the Center for Independent Public Broadcasting.
“If we had an independent source of funding, you could do away with the congressional appropriation and the various kinds of harassment that go with that – that typically come from conservative organizations speaking through Republican politicians expressing dislike for a program that PBS might have put on that serves a constituency that they don’t value,” Starr told The Augusta Free Press.
Where the CIPB and FAIR see the money coming from – from a levy on television advertising or from commercial broadcast-license sales – is where conservatives raise the red flag.
“This is the same problem that we’ve had with public broadcasting for decades,” said Cliff Kincaid, the editor of the Washington, D.C.,-based Accuracy in Media Report.
“They want to force taxpayers to pay for programming that they may not want, that they don’t watch, that they don’t enjoy. And now they want more money – a billion dollars a year – and they want it to be independent of any federal input. This is a typical left-wing socialist approach – and it’s moving in the wrong direction,” Kincaid told the AFP.
“What’s being proposed by a lot of people is not true independence,” said James Gattuso, a telecommunications-industry analyst with the Washington, D.C.,-based Heritage Foundation.
“If you have a trust fund where the money comes from the taxpayers, you’re still spending resources from one group of people for programming on the system regardless of whether they want to support that or not. That’s different than an independent source of funding where people voluntarily give their money to support that,” Gattuso told the AFP.
Starr said that the characterizations of the funding sources coming from advertising or broadcast-license sales as being taxes are off base.
“We don’t consider it a tax as such – but rather a use fee. That is, if you want to graze cattle on public lands, you pay a use fee to the government for that. If you want to drill for oil on public lands, you pay a use fee for that to the government. If you want to lay cable in a municipality, you pay a use fee to that municipality for that privilege. And yet the broadcasters have a monopoly over the public’s airwaves, and they are owned by the public by statute, and only leased to the broadcasters in public trust, and they pay nothing for it. They make billions of dollars in profits, and they pay absolutely nothing for it,” Starr said.
“A small tax on commercial broadcasters would be sufficient to fund this public trust. And then we would have a chance of being truly alternative at a time when we truly need one,” Starr said.
The idea is gaining steam among public-broadcasting supporters for that very reason, according to Rendall.
“A lot of people mistook us at first – as if we were talking about eliminating public-broadcasting funding, which isn’t at all what we’re calling for,” Rendall told the AFP.
“The more we talk to people about this, the more open they are to it. It is, after all, a way to protect public broadcasting from anybody’s influence. A lot of people who want to see public broadcasting protected from the political winds think this is a good idea,” Rendall said.
Gattuso said it is “encouraging that people are talking about independence – to the extent that people are realizing that independence might be the only way out of the dilemma of how do you fund programming.”
“It’s distressing, though, that the independence so far being proposed is only half of the equation,” Gattuso said.
“It’s more or less cherry-picking the concept of independence. You get the independence in terms of oversight and accountability, but you don’t get the quote ‘independence’ from receiving taxpayer dollars. It’s almost like you’re asking for the benefits, but not the responsibilities of independence,” Gattuso said.