Thinking Inside the Box

The Threat to Defund Public Broadcasting

by Ellis Bromberg, General Manager of MPTV

Hi, Ellis Bromberg with more "Thinking Inside the Box."

Among the debates that preceded the recent elections was a heated discussion which related to public television only indirectly -- well, we thought it was only indirect, but some saw it differently. And their concerns and questions are ones those of us who do love and value public broadcasting will have to address this coming year, particularly with the political changes in Washington and Madison.

A couple of weeks before Election Day, at least three prominent conservatives -- Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin -- called for an end to public funding of public broadcasting.

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint announced he would champion that cause, introducing a bill that would end all federal funding for both public radio and public television.

The controversy they were responding to had nothing to do with public television, really. But it did involve public radio.

Juan Williams, a correspondent for National Public Radio, and at the same time a commentator for Fox News, made a controversial remark on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox on October 18. Here's what Williams told Bill O'Reilly:

"I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

NPR said those remarks were "inconsistent with [their] editorial standards and practices, and undermined Williams' credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

Two days later, NPR fired Williams, with its president Vivian Schiller explaining: "NPR News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts..."

Now, Williams made out okay -- he was immediately offered a $2 million dollar, three-year contract by Fox News -- but NPR was condemned for its decision, and the way they handled it, which I would say was done poorly. It was disrespectful of Williams, and gave ammunition to critics who complained that the firing showed conservative viewpoints are unwelcome on NPR, that NPR has a liberal bias, and that funding should be ended for public radio. NPR has apologized for the way it handled the firing, but it sticks by its decision to dismiss Williams.

Now, this was a public radio controversy, but we received numerous calls and letters at our station, mostly expressing anger against public broadcasting in general. Although we have really nothing to do with public radio, we both receive federal support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and many viewers don't see the differences between public television and public radio.

Whether or not you agree with the firing of Juan Williams, these follow-up calls for the defunding of public broadcasting are very troubling, for several reasons:

First, this action is really an attack on the editorial independence of public broadcasting. In our view, it's critical to preserve and respect our stations' editorial integrity, and our right to hire and fire personnel without political pressure. If public broadcasting loses that we risk deep cracks in the firewall between stations and Congress that has protected public broadcasting in this country, and preserved the quality and independence of our programming which viewers have come to depend on.

For all these complaints about bias, for the seventh consecutive year, the Roper Poll found public television to be the most trusted institution in the nation, and public radio not far behind; both ranked much higher than cable and commercial network newscasts -- and Congress. PBS was ranked at the top in public trust among every age group, every ethnicity, income, and education measured. We will resist political attempts to jeopardize that trust.

Second, the American people have said time and again they think public funding of public broadcasting is appropriate -- and a loss of it could be devastating to many public TV and radio stations.

That Roper Poll found that about 80 percent of respondents, across all age groups, ethnicities, income, and education level measured, believe funding for public television is money "well spent." Even more, respondents found public television to be an "excellent" use of tax dollars, second only to military defense, ahead of public schools.

A loss of federal funding means our stations would be unable to continue to provide southeastern Wisconsin with all the unparalleled educational programming we offer today.

Although federal funding makes up only about 10 percent of our budget, and state funding only about 1 percent, that percentage is much higher for some other stations in Wisconsin and across the country, particularly in remote and rural areas.

Federal funding is the "lifeblood" of public broadcasting, providing critical seed money -- nationally, stations leverage each $1 of the federal investment to raise over $6 locally. It's a highly successful and model public-private partnership.

And while federal funding is essential to the operations of local stations like ours in communities across the country, it represents only a small portion of the overall federal budget -- a yearly federal investment amounting to just $1.35 per American.

But that investment produces remarkable results for taxpayers, content you'll find only on public television and public radio: unmatched children's educational programming; formal and informal instruction for all ages; in-depth and balanced news and public affairs; important health and lifestyle information; and much more. And, of course, impactful local productions right alongside high-quality national series and specials.

We're not quite sure what the new political environment will mean for funding for public institutions like public broadcasting. But we believe that this service is as good as it is, and striving to get better all the time, thanks to public funding.

Look, we have commercial bookstores, but we know of the importance of public libraries. And we have theme parks from Disneyland to Six Flags, but we value our public parks and waterways. Likewise, there is commercial television, and you can pay to receive cable and satellite.

But public television stands alone in presenting diverse, in-depth, high quality, informational, arts, and educational programming for everyone, young and old, without having to pay for it.

We think that's worth fighting for. And if you agree, I hope you'll drop me a line so I can tell you how you can help.

Until then, enjoy the holiday season -- and I'll be back next month with more thinking inside the box.