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Coming Soon to Public Broadcasting: Political Reporting Funded By The Koch Bros.?

by Amy Kerr Hardin

When you next tune into your favorite National Public Radio broadcast, say… maybe it’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, you might expect to hear a story like the one aired in 2010 about the billionaire Koch brothers and their ongoing egregious attempts to wholesale purchase our political system. NPR ran this segment well before the Koch brothers became two of the most reviled men in America. Public Broadcasting, unlike commercial news, was able to report the truth and alert the public about these bad boys because it was insulated by law from external political pressure.

And now it seems the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wants to see even more of the Koch brothers on NPR – buying politcal “issue ads” through their super PAC, Americans for Prosperity, that is.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 provided the American public with 45 years of politically unfettered programing, and now, thanks to a recent ruling from the 9th Circuit out of California, this institution is gravely threatened. The case in question, Minority Television Project v. FCC, was essentially about a public broadcasting station that had run commercial ads which are strictly forbidden by law. The court looked at that provision of this long-standing statute that prohibited advertising and chose to uphold the ban on commercial ads for goods and services, but citing constitutionally protected free speech, they shockingly struck down the portion outlawing political advertisements, including both candidate and issue ads — making this ruling nearly as appalling as that found in the Citizens United case.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law decades ago, he was explicit and emphatic on the point of keeping politics and politicians out the content and spirit of our public airways. In his signing speech, Johnson said of public broadcasting “it will be carefully guarded from Government or party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to the people.”

Public broadcasting, including both National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), has been a thorn in the side of politicians ever since, but more acutely so with Republicans in recent years. They don’t like what they can not control. Unable to directly manipulate content, they go for the Achilles heal of public broadcasting — its budget, the only area where they may legally exert pressure.  In 2011 lawmakers threatened to eliminate NPR’s federal funding altogether.  Over the years, they’ve made claims of liberal bias, they’ve asserted the public airways are antiquated, and now they’re all a clamor about fiscal responsibility.

Let’s examine the numbers then.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) receives about $430M taxpayer dollars (FY 2011). That equals one 25th of one percent of U.S. discretionary spending. Spread among its approximately 1300 member television and radio stations, it accounts for a small portion of most of their individual budgets. The CPB does not fundraise like its affiliates regularly do, but it does receive additional revenues through various funders, notably the Ford and the Annenberg foundations. U.S. federal funding of public broadcasting amounts to $1.35 per capita, compared to $82 at the British Broadcasting Corporation, $30 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and $60 for Japan’s public airways. It seems our public radio and television is a bargain indeed.

Both NPR and PBS rely heavily on viewer support for day to day operations and programming. In fact, of NPR’s revenues, only a small fraction of their budget is from federal funds, with fully 39 percent coming from devoted listeners and another 45 percent from various other sources. The remaining 16 percent are derived from a combination of federal, state, and local governement sources along with other monies contributed by foundations to the CPB.

So, why then if the federal portion is so small does it even matter?

Simply put, not all public broadcasting member stations are created equal. The Public Broadcasting Act itself acknowledged that one of the core purposes of public airways was to provide open media access to underserved markets — places where other media did not exist, or where the quality of the media was low. And 45 years later, the need is still there for public airways.

Often rural, and frequently impoverished, member stations are unable to accomplish the level of fundraising found in more upscale markets so they find themselves relying heavily on federal funding. Some NPR affiliates rely on up to 50 percent of their revenues coming from federal funds, and while only 15 percent of the PBS overall budget is federal, some of their member stations are drawing 40 to 50 percent of their operating costs from taxpayers. Stations like these, that are heavily reliant on tax dollars, broadcast at the mercy of lawmakers, and every year they find themselves in a crisis mode based on the politics and cost of public broadcasting being leveraged against other descretionary spending.

So, are they worth the $1.35 per year to the average American?

NPR is known for its superb news reporting. While commercial news media have shrunk their newsrooms, almost to the point of non-existence, NPR has stayed true their mission in reporting on both domestic and global issues, all being delivered to their listeners daily and hourly through member stations. They are among the few media outlets that maintain a robust foreign reporting presence.

PBS is the lone holdout among all media in supporting the arts. While commercial television has slithered down the road of merely titillating and teasing the lowest common denominator of their viewership with cheap and sleazy fare like talent and reality shows, PBS has consistently kicked their collective asses with some of the best and most creative programming imaginable. Just this past year they’ve bagged a whopping 31 Emmys (the next closest was ABC at 20), 6 Peabodys (more than the rest), 11 Parent’s Choice Awards for websites, and 2 Webbys.

PBS has a long history of partnering with public education, as was the intent of the Public Broadcasting Act. Its children’s programming is second to none, yet that didn’t stop conservatives from their recent attack on Sesame Street. Given the Republican war on public education as a whole, and their obsession with privatizing everything in sight, we should not be surprised they want to pink slip Elmo and Big Bird too.

But alas, the most they can do is put the beloved puppets on war rations.

Decreasing federal dollars, along with broader economic woes, have distressed many public broadcasting member stations to the breaking point, and their search for alternative revenue sources is an unfortunate economic reality. When it becomes a choice between shuttering the doors or holding their noses while collecting huge sums in political ad dollars – it’s a difficult call to make. Ethics and history may be damned.

Not surprisingly, the commercial broadcasting business model is completely incompatible with the goals and values of public broadcasting.

For-profit radio and television stations already devote approximately 33 percent of their airtime hawking wares — from wrinkle creams to boner pills. Their programming content is 100 percent ratings-driven and their advertiser rates are determined by viewership. This is why we’ve seen a narrowing of program genre, a lowering of quality, and a dumbing-down of content. Commercial programming is like a gruesome auto accident — people don’t want to see it, but they still look. They’re simply mesmerized by the sight of stupidity.

At the same time, commercial stations make a king’s ransom in election years from political ads. In fact, one salesperson from a Northern Michigan network affiliate recently told me his only concern was the squeezing-off the airways of his regular local advertisers because he’d have to work so hard to get them back.

And, as if their election money orgy wasn’t indolent enough, commercial broadcasters don’t even want to have to report to the FCC the legally required political advertising information in a timely manner. The FCC proposed they start using an easy and expedient online data base to file their reports so interested parties and reporters could quickly access the data. The current system is a strictly hand-written paper format which is stored in old-fashioned file cabinets. The stations complained, claiming they don’t have the time or resources to file their political ad reports electronically. CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and Univision joined forces and sent a letter to the FCC stating that electronic “public files would greatly burden broadcasters for no significant public benefit.”

Prior to the Citizens United ruling, many commercial stations had been struggling. But now these local markets are enjoying a boon in political dollar revenues. Stations that had been teetering on the brink have suddenly become attractive investments opportunites for acquistion and merger-minded Wall Street types. Their public broadcasting cousins can’t help but take notice of their financial success.

And now the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has opened Pandora’s Box to similarly struggling public broadcasters, making them vulnerable to the temptation of market forces with the money of politics and the politics of money. Programming choices could fall victim and become the dictum of the politcal sponsors of whom they mustn’t run afoul.

You may tell your public broadcasters not to accept political ad dollars through this online petition at SaveTheNews.org.

The Koch brothers shouldn’t live on Sesame Street — it’s just not right.

Amy Kerr Hardin blogs at democracy-tree.com 

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2 Comments for “Coming Soon to Public Broadcasting: Political Reporting Funded By The Koch Bros.?”

  1. And speaking of Terry Gross, this is amusing: http://www.theatlantic.com/video/archive/2012/05/mike-birbiglias-new-short-film-from-this-american-life-live/257137/

  2. Ah, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, that stalwart of conservative political thought…:)

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