And Then They Came for Big Bird: Public Broadcasting Reels From Trump’s Plan to Destroy It

Next on President Trump’s hit list: public broadcasting. His plan to defund it will have a decimating effect on access to nuanced journalism and educational TV.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Donald Trump is hardly the first Republican president to propose defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—the tax-supported entity that underwrites PBS and NPR—but he could be the first to actually get it done.

Although the $445 million budget item that Trump wishes to zero out is a mere speck of dust in the $4.6 trillion scheme of things—a line item that represents $1.35 out of each citizen’s pocket—the cut would likely bring about the dismantling of radio and television networks that have survived for five decades through periodic belt-tightening and political intimidation.

Thus, in the budget plans released Thursday, Trump and his minions are flipping the Big Bird at a popular American institution.

“Today has been very disappointing,” PBS President Paula Kerger told The Daily Beast, noting that an individual’s annual outlay for public broadcasting is barely enough for a cup of coffee.

“I think we are always concerned whenever we’re in a circumstance like that, where a budget has a zero next to our name. In this case, we’re taking nothing for granted. These are different and complicated days.”

PBS icon Bill Moyers warned: “This is the first time they’ve tried it when they’ve had one-party rule in Washington, and this time they have what it takes to succeed, which is a ruthless president who doesn’t want any medium that competes with the alternate facts that they’re putting out.”

As a top aide to President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago, Moyers contributed to the formulation of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that launched citizen-backed television and radio in the United States. “I was present at the creation,” he told The Daily Beast—but if things go Trump’s way, Moyers might also be present at the destruction.

“I think their real target is NPR, which is a national broadcast news network with enough gumption to be a threat to the alt-right media, Breitbart and those people,” said the 82-year-old Moyers, who these days is president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, which dispenses around $3 million a year to support independent journalism and documentaries, as well as making documentaries himself and running his own eponymous online news outlet, Moyers & Company.

Washington-headquartered NPR, which reaches 37.5 million listeners a week on 264 member stations plus hundreds more licensee-stations with news programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, depends on taxpayers for around 10 percent of the NPR system’s billion-dollar budget. NPR has so far not commented on Trump’s proposal.

But CPB President Patricia Harrison blasted the budget plan in a statement: “There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services. The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions--for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”

Neal Shapiro, president of New York’s WNET—one of the three major PBS production centers (Boston and Washington are the other two)—said that if Trump’s budget cut is enacted, it will literally destroy public television.

“It is really catastrophic because the whole system depends on a relatively small investment by the federal government—$1.35 per taxpayer,” Shapiro told The Daily Beast. “I think most taxpayers wouldn’t notice it one way or the other if it went away. But I think they would notice if PBS went away.”

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Shapiro, who estimated that taxpayers fund 15 percent of WNET’s $150 million budget—with the rest supplied by viewers, donors, foundations and individual station licensing fees for WNET productions such as Great Performances and Nature—“the federal investment is really the flywheel that keeps this whole system going…We raise five or six times more money than the federal dollars, but the federal dollars are often the first in, and often the ones that can pay for some of the operating expenses because those are often the hardest thing to raise money for. To pull the plug on that would be to destroy the lynchpin of the whole system.”

In the worst-case scenario, rural and small-town PBS stations—many of which depend on the feds for half or more of their annual budgets because they can’t draw on the financial resources of a big city like New York—would be forced off the air.

The interdependent network of 350 member stations nationwide would inevitably start to collapse, fees to the production centers would decline, and eventually creative producers would look elsewhere for a truly national audience, which in turn would prompt a death spiral of decimation.

“I think the rural districts and smaller towns will be the first places that are hardest hit,” Shapiro said, noting that many of those stations are located in red states that helped Trump win the presidency. “The big stations will be able to survive in the short term,” he added, “but as the system crumbles, we’ll all get washed away.”

The CPB has long been a target of conservative culture warriors such as former Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan aide Patrick Buchanan, who placed it prominently on his personal hit list.

But Trump’s freshly minted budget director, former South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney, is framing the proposed cut as an act of fiscal responsibility.

"Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?" he asked Thursday during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. "The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense and we will, but we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

Mulvaney’s argument was undermined not only by the miniscule expense to coal miners and single moms, but also by a public opinion survey commissioned by PBS in January, clearly in anticipation of Trump’s budget ploy.

The telephone survey of 1,001 registered voters, conducted jointly by Republican and Democratic polling firms and released Thursday as Trump’s budget landed, showed 73 percent opposing federal cuts for public television; meanwhile, 83 percent, including 70 percent of those who voted for Trump, wanted Congress to find budget savings elsewhere.

NPR, meanwhile, has also found a powerful Republican ally in Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that grants federal funding for the CPB.

In a recent interview with media site Current, Cole admitted to enjoying Morning Edition, calling it “informative and fair” and said NPR and PBS “both perform a valuable service. I support them both.”

“With public radio I can wake up without someone shouting at me,” he said. “I know some people disagree but if they’d listen to the content they’d likely come to another opinion.”