Local stations lead the fight
In Colorado, where Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn has signaled interest in eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public broadcasting viewers are being greeted by a call-to-action from Rocky Mountain Public Media’s President and CEO Amanda Mountain.
“Public media is imperative to the lives of Coloradoans,” Mountain says in the video, before directing viewers to a “Protect My Public Media” website. “We need your help to make the case that public media is both essential and an excellent investment.”
The interim director of the Oklahoma Television Authority Mark Norman is presenting the same message to viewers there. In Detroit, viewers are urged to show their love for public media online and via social media between some broadcasts. And across Twitter, people all over have been praising public broadcasting via the hashtag #ILovePBS while a ValuePBS Account shares news reports and polling.
Public broadcasters have successfully fought off attempts to cut their funding for nearly a half century, but they’re not taking any chances when it comes to President Trump’s proposed cuts.
TV and radio stations around the country that receive money from the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting are airing ads and using Twitter campaigns to encourage viewers to contact their members of Congress about Trump’s proposal to cut federal funding.
The tactics are an updated version of the classic public broadcasting defensive play. Since much of the money the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives goes to support local stations and the infrastructure to give children across the U.S. equal access, the arguments are made at the local level. And since broadcasters can’t directly lobby the government, those stations turn to their viewers.
“We never seek to lobby on behalf of any public media issues, we just seek to provide educational resources to our viewers on a whole host of issues and this just happens to be one of them,” says Mountain. “Our audience likes to be educated about the things that they care about and our audience cares deeply about public media.”
PBS President Paula Kerger told CNN that 40% of preschoolers who watch their kids programming do so via television, which means if stations are cut, they’ll have no other way to access shows. While Sesame Street now broadcasts on HBO as well, expanding its reach, kids in Appalachia and other stretches of the country do not have access to those platforms — some don’t even have basic cable — so public broadcasting ends up being their only avenue for entertainment.
“In many communities and in many homes that cannot afford cable or broadband, we are the lifeline,” she said.
In rural Tennessee, there’s only one station, WCTE, available to residents in 14 counties without cable or broadband service, Variety reports. It receives about 40% of its $2 million annual operating budget from CPB. That money is mostly used to build and maintain the systems that make it so residents of the most rural stretches of the state are still able to tune in for Odd Squad after school or Charlie Rose before bed.
Conservatives have long targeted public broadcasting. President Nixon was accused of trying to “intimidate” and “starve” public media just a couple of years after its founding. President Reagan also proposed slashing funding as did House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush, who attempted to do so every year he was in office. As recently as 2011, the House of Representatives voted to defund public radio, while while Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney even proposed cutting it at a debate hosted by PBS’ Jim Lehrer.
Lamborn introduced legislation to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in late January, saying Republicans need to “demonstrate that we take our fiscal responsibility seriously” by shifting money away from the “superfluous” nonprofit and toward national security and the military.
That thinking aligns with arguments presented by the Trump Administration when it zeroed out public broadcasting in its proposed budget. In justifying the cuts, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney asked, “Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?”
Not everyone is worried about the future of public broadcasting. For starters, public support for it is high. Polling suggests the same moms and miners Mulvaney invoked do not have an issue with public broadcast funding, which is estimated to cost every American $1.35 a year: a 2017 Hart Research/American Viewpoint poll found that 73% of voters oppose cutting CPB money, including 62% of Republicans. And the main reason people want to protect public broadcasting are the resources it provides for parents, caregivers and teachers.
Democrats support public media, but there are also champions of public broadcasting within both Congress and the Trump Administration. Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who was honored by the organization America’s Public Television Stations in 2016, downplayed the threat to public broadcasting before the budget was released and declared “Congress makes the final call” earlier in March. Vice President Mike Pence has also been honored by APTS and the organization is working to get through to President Trump.
“There are some people who think the government doesn’t have any business funding any media enterprise,” says Patrick Butler, the President of APTS. “Fortunately for us, a much larger number understands that what we’re providing is a public service.”