Technology with attitude

Gunning for PBS

10

The GOP is hoping to make PBS and NPR DOA as far as federal funding goes in FY2007.

House Republicans yesterday revived their efforts to slash funding for public broadcasting, as a key committee approved a $115 million reduction in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that could force the elimination of some popular PBS and NPR programs.

There are several points to be made here. But first, some context.

1. Even if enacted these cuts wouldn’t destroy public broadcasting. Most such stations are largely self-supporting. Minnesota Public Radio, for instance, gets 80 percent of its funding from private sources. If federal dollars disappear, there would still be state funding. But even if they both vanished, the resulting 20 percent budget cut would hurt but it wouldn’t be fatal.

2. Some areas would be hurt pretty badly. The cuts would be disproportionately felt in poor and rural areas, where listeners are fewer or have fewer dollars to spare for station support — and thus rely more heavily on government funding.

3. Conservatives have been gunning for public broadcasting for years on ideological grounds, considering the programming to be liberally biased. What’s ironic is that if they succeed it will be the rural areas that will be hit the hardest — areas that are generally more conservative, and thus less likely to schedule programming the conservatives find offensive. The stations they really dislike — large urban operations — will be largely unaffected.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s look at why the House says it’s trying to cut this funding:

Republicans are looking for ways to save taxpayers’ dollars, amid fiscal conservatives’ concerns over the budget deficit.

“We’ve got to keep our priorities straight,” said Representative Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican who is chairman of the appropriations panel that approved the cut. “You’re going to choose between giving a little more money to handicapped children versus providing appropriations for public broadcasting.”

Oh, so it’s a tough budget call. We need to get the deficit under control, and it’s either PBS or the handicapped kids.

Give me a break.

We’re talking chicken feed here. $115 million won’t even begin to make a dent in the deficit. Yes, enough small cuts can add up to big cuts. But Republicans aren’t even pretending that this is part of a significant cutback in spending. Maybe, before spending so much time and effort cutting pennies from PBS, they should assemble the $300 billion worth of cuts it will take simply to balance the budget, never mind start paying down the debt.

And trying to frame this as a choice between PBS and handicapped children is breathtakingly cynical in a year when Republicans have led the fight to abolish the estate tax — at a cost to federal coffers of $70 billion per year. And that’s on the heels of $2 trillion or more in previous tax cuts and another $300 billion or so in Iraq-related costs.

You wanna save PBS and help the handicapped kids? Raise taxes by 50 cents per capita. Problem solved.

There are plenty of principled debates one could have about public broadcasting, involving the role of government and whether that role includes funding for the arts. Or, given the recent experience of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, whether the government should be owning or supporting domestic media outlets at all.

But that’s not the debate that House Republicans are having. Their chosen arguments are cowardly, cynical and intellectually vapid.

Debate public broadcasting on the merits. But don’t try to slit its throat in the dark of night while hiding behind needy children.