Who Loses If Trump Cuts Public Media Funding? His Supporters.

Bill Clark/Roll Call via AP Images

A group of public broadcasting supporters gathers in the Hart Senate Office building to lobby lawmakers to keep funding the PBS and NPR. 

After decades of empty threats from conservative Republicans to end federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), President Trump’s budget blueprint has made it official: Among other draconian cuts, he zeroes out the CPB, the nonprofit agency that provides grants to 1,500 local public radio and television stations across the country.

It is the most direct threat to date faced by the CPB, which covers some of the costs of national programming for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. In the past, pledges to slash CPB have come mostly from GOP presidential hopefuls eager to serve up red meat to the far right—charade common enough that even some conservatives roll their eyes when CPB tough talk surfaces yet again. Will Trump finally be the one to end federal support for public media?

If so, Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House should brace for the same kind of trouble that calls to axe the CPB have stirred up in the past. Not only are public media subsidies meager in the U.S. compared with what’s offered in other countries, but CPB funding goes disproportionately to local stations in rural, often Republican-leaning areas. Zeroing out the CPB would cause the most programming cuts and station closures in Trump country, while doing far less to hurt public media outlets in dense, urban, more Democratic areas.

That helps explain why Mitt Romney’s infamous claim in the first 2012 presidential debate that he loved Big Bird but would cut public media subsidies as “wasteful government spending” turned into a politically damaging gaffe. It also explains why, time and time again, Republicans in Congress have quietly joined with Democrats in protecting CPB funding after the dust of elections settles.

Nor would cutting public media funding achieve conservative objectives. Such cuts would deliver little in cost savings, to start with. Most Americans wildly overestimate how much government funding public media receives, believing that CPB, for one, gets 1 percent or more of the federal budget. In fact, CPB’s budget for the coming year is $445 million, or about 0.000112 percent of the roughly $4 trillion dollar federal budget. Overall, government funding for public media in the U.S. is about $3 per capita, compared with about $30 in Canada, $90 in the United Kingdom, and $150 in Germany, Denmark, and Norway.

And what of conservative allegations of liberal bias, which tend to focus on NPR? The idea of “defunding NPR” might make some conservatives giddy. The imaginary bogeyman of wealthy elites whose NPR programming is subsidized by taxpayer money may make for effective campaign rhetoric. But NPR’s survival is just not what’s at stake. Urban stations in dense, wealthier markets like those in New York City, Chicago, or Boston would survive without federal funding, as would NPR, which just reported their highest ratings ever. In fact, many urban public media stations already operate with no state subsidies.

By contrast, many rural stations are far more dependent on federal funding; CPB funds upwards of 40-50 percent of some rural stations’ budgets. Such stations can’t turn to wealthy audiences for donations or corporate underwriting. Eliminating federal funding to local stations located in rural areas would have a “devastating effect,” according to a recent CPB statement to the media watchdog group Media Matters. Such stations “would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment,” CPB explained. “Moreover, the entire public media service would be severely debilitated.”

Already operating on shoestring budgets since the 2008 recession, many local stations would simply go dark if they lost CPB support. Federal funding cuts could make it easier for states to justfy further reductions in state subsidies for public broadcasting, leading some stations into a downward spiral toward bankruptcy and privitzation.

And where are these stations located? In deep-red states like Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina and Alaska. From 2008 to 2012, Alabama Public Television (APT) lost nearly half its state funding, which dropped from $10.8 million to $5.5 million. Today, APT receives $5.1 million in state subsidies, and about $2 million in grant money from the CPB. The rest of APT’s budget comes from $2.5 million in user contributions, and about $800,000 in corporate underwriting—not nearly enough to sustain APT should its $7 million state and federal subsidy dry up.

Public media networks that don’t shut down would shift their focus dramatically if they lost their public subsidies. Typically, this would mean pursuing a market-based approach that involves shuttering remote stations and focusing on the denser, metropolitan areas that generate the bulk of individual donations and can sustain programming.

Put simply: Local stations that survive the loss of CPB funding will provide less local programming, focus their energies on urban areas, and become more like shell broadcasting stations—ever more dependent on nationally syndicated programming to fill air time. NPR and PBS, which receive little direct funding from the CPB (1 percent and 7 percent, respectively) would do just fine. Ironically, this would make public media programming less reflective of Trump’s constituents. 

Historically, Republicans have used the federal purse strings as leverage to sway the direction of public programming. Richard Nixon was the first of many Republican presidents to threaten to axe public media funding. Though he did not follow through, most of the programs Nixon singled out as unpatriotic were pushed off the air. In the 1990s, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich again threatened to defund the CPB,  a move that may help explain why NPR and PBS started making room for more commentators on the right.

Republicans who cut all federal funding for public media would therefore lose the one cudgel they now hold over broadcasters. Congress now “forward-funds” the CPB by two years to buffer it from political meddling, but the risk that political pressure will influence content remains high, particularly under a president who routinely badgers journalists, and treats them as personal adversaries.

One of the core objectives of the CPB, as its website states, is to “enhance stations’ role as essential local and regional institutions and content providers,” and many stations would struggle to fulfill this mandate in the face of federal cuts. In fact, one of the best arguments for keeping the meager federal subsidy to the CPB is its service to rural, poorer areas of the country—many of the same counties that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. It would be deeply ironic, in fact, if Trump became the president to finally kill the federal commitment to public broadcasting.

There’s no better example of this than West Virginia, where Trump won his largest share of the vote, over 68 percent. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, just proposed cutting the entire state appropriation for West Virignia Public Broadcasting (WVPB). In one of the most rural and poor states in the country, WVPB cannot survive without public funding, which between state and federal subsidies now makes up 60 percent of its budget.

On the local level, where CPB money helps smaller stations pay for equipment costs and local programming as well as syndication fees to PBS and NPR for national programming, the issue of public media funding is not nearly as partisan as it is inside the Beltway. Even in times of economic crisis, local Republican leaders tend to support and even publicly fight to protect public media subsidies, despite defunding threats from national GOP leaders.

The tension between nationally ambitious politicians and local legislators came to the fore in South Carolina in 2012, with the election of GOP Governor Nikki Haley. Haley, a rising GOP star, shocked the Republican-controlled state legislature with her proposal to cut the entire state subdisy for public broadcasting. Legislators wanted to compromise, approving a bill that reduced overall funding but kept $6 million for public media. Haley vetoed the bill, moving to zero out all funding entirely and privitize the entire system. After a passionate speech by Majority Leader Kenney Bingham, who condemned Haley’s plan as a ploy for national headlines, State Assembly members gave Bingham a raucous standing ovation and unanimously overrode Haley’s veto.

As governor of Indiana, Trump’s own Vice President Mike Pence increased the state’s contribution to its public media stations, filling in a gap left by cuts from the previous governor, Mitch Daniels. For his efforts, Pence received the annual “Champion of Public Broadcasting” award from the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) in 2014. Said Pence in his acceptance speech: “The Hoosier State has now and will continue to find the resources to support public media efforts in our state.”

In moving to eliminate CPB, Trump appears to be following the budget recommendations of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and of his right-wing adviser Steve Bannon, formerly of the alt-right Breitbart News. Perhaps Trump views public media as part and parcel of a “fake news” industry that he has called “the enemy of the people.” True, many New York- and D.C.-based commentators and journalists initially dismissed or even outright laughed at Trump’s candidacy, reflecting the failure of our political institutions and the press to hear the pain and worries of many Americans in rural, often-ignored communities.

But cutting the CPB will only further exclude rural voices from the national conversation. NPR and PBS, with their hundreds of local affiliates and networks, are uniquely situated to help bridge the growing cultural and economic divide between rural and urban America. Despite poorly-evidenced claims of “liberal bias,” NPR has actually gone easier on Trump than many major media outlets. Privately-owned outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, routinely use the term “lie” and “liar” as they fact-check the torrent of falsehoods and outright propaganda from the Trump administration. But NPR has refused to use those terms, noting its responsibility as neutral arbiter.

If anything, public media journalists feel a special obligation to showcase the full spectrum of voices and perspectives from across America. This obligation is unique to public broadcasting, as expressed in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to begin with.

Republicans have been playing a dangerous game with federal funding for the CPB—denouncing NPR and PBS for political points while quietly defending public broadcasting in their home states. Now, Republicans will be forced to decide if they want to hurt their own constituencies or take a stand against Trump’s radical agenda. If the Trump administration and Republican leaders finally do cut the CPB, Pence should at least return his “Champion of Public Broadcasting” award. 

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