The Corporation for Public Broadcasting suffered a substantial setback Saturday when the House of Representatives passed its budget proposal eliminating all federal funding to public media. Despite the cutbacks, CPB is refusing to reduce its role as a news provider used by more than 50 percent of Americans each month.
The approval of the bill—which cuts more than $60 billion to many domestic programs, foreign aid and some military programs—symbolizes a victory for a vocal Republican Party committed to dramatically decreasing government spending. Republicans led the charge to defund public media in the upcoming fiscal year, making the issue a heated partisan debate.
“This new Congress faces a tough challenge,” said Nicole Mezlo, director of media and public relations at CPB. “We respect the challenge it is going through, and we are willing to share in that sacrifice that all domestic programs are going to have to make. The point is that the attempt to eliminate funding to CPB is disproportionate.”
Despite the efforts of President Barack Obama—who proposed an increase of $6 million for the CPB in the upcoming 2012 fiscal year budget—and several House Democrats to support CPB, the bill passed in the House this weekend with a vote of 235 to 189. All 186 Democrats opposed the bill with only three Republicans voting against it.
“The Obama Administration understands the dramatic impact that cutting public broadcasting will have on the public—it would be huge,” said Connie Walker, general manager for WUNC-North Carolina Public Radio. “It has been a target by Republicans for years on and off, and it’s just really intense right now.”
But Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, cautioned against making the impending cuts to public media into a simple red-blue issue. As former senior vice president for policy and public affairs at CPB, Schoenfeld said he has seen some of the strongest past supporters of public broadcasting coming out of the Republican party.
“It is not just partisan but it is ideological as well,” Schoenfeld said. “Republicans have always been very skeptical of public broadcasting for competitive and ideological grounds, but it is not a universal feeling. The problem is that there is still pretty strong partisan disagreement on what the role of the government should be in these arguments.”
No Republican representatives from North Carolina in favor of the budget proposal could be reached for comment.
The House bill will now go to the Senate where Democrats have said they will not agree with all of the substantive cuts. From there, it could reach the White House where Obama has already threatened a veto. Phil Bennett, Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of journalism and public policy and former managing editor of The Washington Post, acknowledged that as long as the deficit remains as large as it does he could not imagine CPB coming out unscathed, but he added that the industry offers an indispensable service to consumers.
“When it comes to news, public media is the eye of the storm,” Bennett said. “It’s the calm, credible [and] intelligent censor of an increasingly chaotic news landscape. The richness of the discussion, of news coverage and of analysis [of] public television and public radio provides a very important news function.”
Mezlo said CPB is focusing on educating Congress members on the value of public media and the importance of quality information, specifically as it affects their constituents. She added that because the government’s budget for CPB—which came to $420 million last fiscal year—is only one-twenty eighth of 1 percent of the federal budget, she thought it was an ineffective way to promote economic stability. Mezlo said she believes public media should not be cut unilaterally given its value in the ever-evolving media landscape, noting that public media focuses uniquely on community engagement and deep reporting into issues.
One of those local stations is WUNC based in Chapel Hill, N.C., which Walker said received $530,000 of its $7.2 million budget from the federal government in the last fiscal year. WUNC is working alongside many stations to combat the proposed budget cuts, she said, citing the new organization 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting—in which WUNC is a partner—as a cornerstone in the industry’s commitment to saving the 1,300 local non-commercial radio and television stations supported by CPB.
“We are praised for civil discourse, intelligent information and information that is important to the world around us,” Walker said. “Public media offers more in-depth coverage than other media outlets [and does] what other media outlets can’t do, and we’re worth saving.”
Although federal funding is a relatively small portion of WUNC’s annual budget, Bennett said possible government cuts will be felt more drastically in rural areas where government support of public media is larger. This poses a potential threat to the vitality of local news, he said, which is already being undercut by private domestic cuts in the industry as well.
“It is those stations that are serving smaller audiences and communities that are already increasingly under-reported due to other cuts that are occurring in the media,” Bennett said.
Indeed, stations in smaller communities, whose budgets are composed of more federal funding, will feel the brunt of the blow if the pending proposal passes. But Mezlo said university students are also intimately tied to public media, noting that public media programs share similar missions with universities and students of “life-long learning” and personal exploration, providing viewers with a variety of different viewpoints.
After spending time in the worlds of media and education, Schoenfeld noted similarities between both.
“Public media is the university of the air,” he said. “When you think of what a university offers in terms of information, education, illumination [and] culture, these are all the things that public media offers uniquely and what makes it is so remarkably different and more comprehensive than anything else that is on the air.”
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