Painful cuts could impact public broadcasting

Story by Chris Graham

Supporters of public broadcasting had thought that the war on PBS and NPR was over.

“Basically, what we’re seeing here is that the administration is laying the foundation for the elimination of all federal funding for public broadcasting indefinitely,” said Kristin Wilson, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.,-based Association of Public Television Stations, reacting to the recommendation from the Bush administration from last week for deep cuts in federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The administration included a total of $157 million in cuts for public broadcasting in its budget proposals for 2007 and 2008 – including $103 million that would go in the form of direct grants to public radio and TV stations across the country and millions more earmarked for a series of mandated technological upgrades.

The budget plan would eliminate all federal funding for the CPB in 2009.

The impact of the cuts would be felt from Washington to the front lines of public broadcasting. The Harrisonburg-based public-television station WVPT, for one, is facing the prospect of losing up to $150,000 in annual funding, said Bert Schmidt, the station’s president and general manager.

“The impact would certainly be felt on our end in local programming and children’s services. Those things would be the first to be cut. Losing $150,000 really hurts our ability to provide the local kinds of services that people really value about WVPT,” Schmidt told The Augusta Free Press.“Some people say, ‘Let’s wean PBS off the federal dole.’ But what you’re doing is you’re hurting the local small stations the most, stations like WVPT,” Schmidt said. “The things that we would have to cut are educational services, services to the kids, children’s programming. What we would have to do most likely is focus on more standard PBS fare and less on local programming because, frankly, local programming is the most expensive thing that we do here.

“We want to be different and have local programs,” Schmidt said. “But when you have cuts of $150,000, that can be really significant. It’s really, really early in the process, so I don’t want to get people too worried right now. This has been fairly standard in this administration that we have to deal with proposed budget cuts, but fortunately, we’ve seen the American public step up every year and say no, we don’t want you to cut public broadcasting.”

That was the message last year when Congress and the president publicly mulled over similar CPB budget cuts.

“This is something of a surprise just because the backlash was so strong last year to reinstate full funding,” said Craig Aaron, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.,-based media-advocacy group Free Press.

“A million people signed a petition distributed by MoveOn saying basically to leave the money there, to put it back. We saw hundreds of thousands of letters and e-mails going to Congress over the summer – and big gatherings on the Hill of schoolchildren and members of Congress and people dressed up as cartoon characters. There was a very powerful pushback, and it’s been repeated every time dating back to when Newt Gingrich was in office and tried to take away this money, to defund public broadcasters,” Aaron told the AFP.

The defunding movement has its roots in the pushback from conservatives who feel that public broadcasting serves a partisan political agenda.

“We’ve always maintained that, and continue to maintain that. I think it’s fairly obvious,” said Tim Graham, the director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center.

“When you spend any amount of time monitoring the content of public broadcasting, it’s still a liberal playground. They won’t admit that, but it’s true,” Graham told the AFP.

“What’s interesting is that we had this big fight over Friday night the past couple of years. The liberals were upset over ‘Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered’ and ‘The Journal Editorial Report.’ This time last year, these were two of the things that they were fighting about. Neither one of them are there anymore,” Graham said.

“The joke at the time was, good for Ken Tomlinson, he succeeded in balancing Friday night, but how about Saturday through Thursday?” Graham said. “I always thought it was funny that they basically thought that you put on an hour of conservative-leaning programming on Friday night, and suddenly the whole network is Bush TV.

“I don’t quite see where liberals get upset about this being in danger. It obviously isn’t in danger. That said, this obviously continues to be on a routine basis a biased set of radio stations and TV stations,” Graham said.

Schmidt countered that the public broadcasting’s conservative critics “simply can’t be watching.”

“You have to watch to be able to make a judgment. We allow all voices. Sure, there are some liberal voices on. There are some conservative voices on. There’s a mix. That’s the beauty of public television – there’s a wide variety of voices, intelligent voices,” Schmidt said.

“When you have Jeff Ishee or Mark Viette or Richard Parker doing local shows, they’re not liberal or conservative. But what they do is important to the local community,” Schmidt said.

“We don’t do anything with the idea of advocacy toward any political point of view. It’s just a reputation that people who don’t even watch public programming have in their mind,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt is hopeful that Congress will see through the politics – as it did last year.

Wilson foresees a similar course of action taking place.

“The budget proposal goes against what the public wants and what Congress wants. Last year, folks on the Hill and the public were very supportive. We’re working toward getting the same outcome this year. That’s really our only option,” Wilson told the AFP.

Even Graham doesn’t expect anything in the way of serious cuts being approved by Congress this year – with midterm elections looming on the horizon.

“After what happened in this last round last spring, where they began by proposing the cut, and then ended up basically giving them more money after it went through the House and Senate, I don’t think that I’d be any more enthusiastic about this year. I suppose that all I could say is if we can keep CPB’s federal funding even, then maybe that’s a moral victory of some sort,” Graham said.

 

(Published 02-13-06)

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