Is a small amount government funding worth the political pressure that President Trump can put on public broadcasting?
That’s the question our public broadcasting entities should be asking themselves now that the president, as expected, has proposed cutting all federal funding for public broadcasting. NPR commentators should be thinking how nice it would be to feel free to criticize President Trump without fear of repercussions. PBS reporters should be daydreaming about an unfettered ability to report the real news, including calling out all of Trump’s “facts.”
Cut the cord, public broadcasting, and be free.
I say this as a fan of public broadcasting. We need independent media now more than ever, and state-funded media are not independent. Public broadcasters are less critical of the government than either they could or should be. Yes, comparatively speaking public broadcasting receives relatively little money from the government. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) gets about $450 million per year, which is essentially a rounding error in the federal budget, and NPR has consistently maintained that, on average, “less than 1%” of its “operating budget comes in the form of grants from CPB and federal agencies and departments.” But the absolute numbers are inconsequential. Public broadcasting fights tooth and nail to keep the meager scraps of public money it gets, demonstrating that the funding, however small, is significant enough to affect their behavior.
In claiming “independence,” public broadcasters have contracted a form of Stockholm Syndrome that ignores both history and reality. Public broadcasting was created to be controlled by the government. In 1967, during the initial debates over the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Senator Norris Cotton (R-NH) came right out and said it: “if we have occasion to feel that there is a slanting, [or] a bias,” Congress could either make the directors “very uncomfortable” or they could “shut down some of their activities in the Appropriations Committee.”
In fact, privately funded, independent, non-commercial television networks predate public broadcasting, and our modern public broadcasting system was partially created to supplant them. National Educational Television—created in 1952 with the Ford Foundation providing the lion’s share of funding—was able to air hard-hitting, if not subversive, documentaries such as Who Invited US?, which was critical of U.S. foreign policy, and the British documentary Inside North Vietnam, which contradicted the government’s claims that the military hadn’t attacked civilian targets.
Even without government money, Inside North Vietnam got 33 members of Congress to sign a letter of protest. With government money, it is unlikely it would have ever been aired.
NET understood that government money always came with strings. A mid-60’s NET pamphlet explained how there would be a “furor” in Congress if a publicly funded entity presented a “candid documentary on segregation, or socialized medicine, or birth control,” which is why NET eschewed government funding. When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967, President Johnson, and later President Nixon, hoped that a controlled CPB could put NET out of business.
For any media- and image-obsessed president who is willing to push his power to the limit, public broadcasting presents an easy target. Nixon used budgetary pressures and personnel choices to push CPB toward more “administration friendly” messaging.
A 1969 memo outlined the administration’s goals: creating a new “public” media network to compete with more independent sources such as NET. That network could be controlled because the White House would “have a hand in picking the head of such a major new organization if it were funded by the Corporation [CPB].” That major new organization became PBS. After PBS began broadcasting, NET was finished as a separate network. Some of its programs, such as NET Journal, and facilities (New York’s WNET) were picked up and maintained by PBS.
The Nixon administration threatened to withhold funding increases unless certain concessions were made. Frank Pace, Jr., then chairman of the CPB board, was told by Peter Flanigan, a presidential assistant, that “the proposed $5 million increase in the funding for the Corporation was contingent upon the creation of new program production facilities to replace National Educational Television.” But the new production facility must not be “anti-Administration.” Pace responded that “that there are limitations on his ability to control total programming and broadcasting policies of noncommercial stations,” but Flanigan made it clear: “government funding of CPB should not be used for the creation of anti-Administration programming.”
NET’s “anti-Administration” programming eventually pushed the Nixon White House to try to supplant any private funding with pure public funding, as well as prohibiting the CPB from accepting outside funding. Only then could the politics of public broadcasting be completely under their control.
As a result of these pressures, as well as 40 years of Republicans complaining and threatening defunding, the CPB began to consciously stay out of the White House’s and Congress’s political crosshairs, creating a gun-shy culture that, I would argue, still exists today. If President Trump can’t get rid of the CPB’s funding, it seems likely that he’ll “pull a Nixon” and harm the organization’s independence even more.
If public broadcasting officials want to regain the independence that NET once enjoyed, I have a suggestion: Announce that you will be giving up government funding in an effort to free yourself from political pressure, create a non-commercial, non-profit media entity that runs entirely on donations, and then hold the biggest fundraiser you’ve ever had.
I will gladly write the first check.