$7 Billion, But Whos Counting?

$7 Billion, But Whos Counting?
Media harp on PBS political controversy but ignore massive government funding of public broadcasting.

by Amy Menefee
June 22, 2005

     PBS advocate Bill Moyers is against subsidies when they go to the wrong people. But the public broadcasting that airs the show he once hosted rides a $7 billion-plus wave of government funding a fact that media outlets have omitted in recent coverage of budget wrangling.

     Favored corporations get their contracts, subsidies and offshore loopholes, Moyers said in a political rant on Now, a weekly newsmagazine, on March 26, 2004.

     The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), has been subsidized to the tune of more than $7 billion in federal funds since its charter, and local stations have received billions more from state and local governments. But the media are hyping proposed cuts a fraction of the CPBs budget while ignoring these massive subsidies.

     Public broadcasting advocates have taken to their own airwaves and appeared in the mainstream media begging to be spared from federal budget cuts. But the media have not checked out the numbers that advocates are using to make their claims. A Los Angeles Times headline on June 17, 2005, read, Public Broadcasting Funds May Be Halved. A closer look at the CPBs budget shows that this is false.

     Media coverage of public broadcasting battles has revolved around the issue of bias. This latest round of the funding fight has the House of Representatives proposing to cut about $100 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS and National Public Radio (NPR) stations.

     The money at issue in the House vote is just 15.5 percent of CPBs funding, but thats only the beginning of how much money they get from government. According to the CPBs Web site, public funds actually accounted for 44.4 percent of public broadcastings $2.3 billion in FY2003. That billion-dollar figure includes money coming from state and local governments, public colleges and other federal funds not included in the congressional appropriation. The proposed cuts amount to about $100 million, which is only 4 percent of CPBs revenue for FY2003. FY2003 is the most recent year for which CPB has released detailed numbers on its site.

     Yet, spokesmen for public broadcasting claim that the proposed cuts will have dire consequences, and the media have failed to call them on the reality of CPBs multibillion-dollar budget.

     On CNNs Daybreak June 21, 2005, reporter Kelly Wallace said, PBS could face some big time budget cuts if Congress moves ahead with a proposed slash in funding. She interviewed John Wilson, senior vice president for programming at PBS, who said the $100 million in proposed cuts would be very significant to public broadcasting and will have a tremendous impact on our programming and on our stations themselves. He said stations in smaller communities could be forced out of business by the cuts and that programming quality would decline.

     Such results are the opposite of what the Competitive Enterprise Institutes Braden Cox predicted if public broadcasting decreased or ended its dependence on government money and embraced the free market.

     There are so many different avenues for consumers to get content, said Cox, technology counsel for CEI. If you force PBS to rely more on private funds, they would be forced to provide better content. The broadcasters should want to be liberated, he said.

     The CPB, a private nonprofit institution, already receives more than 55 percent of its support from private sources such as individuals, businesses and foundations. Local television and radio stations regularly conduct fundraising drives aimed at individuals. Its latest ad campaign is overtly political, however, urging people to call their congressmen and lobby for federal funding rather than to contribute from their own checkbooks. Political conflicts of interest aside, Cox said it doesnt make good business sense for the stations to continue a dependence on taxpayer dollars that are subject to congressional approval.

     Why would they still want to be reliant on government funds when they know it could be cut at any time? Cox said.

     David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, agreed that the free market would be a good test of public broadcasting.

     These stations have become big businesses, and they brag about getting only 15 percent of their funding from the government, Boaz said. If that 15 percent were reduced or taken away, he said, most [businesses] dont go out of business when that happens. Boaz said smaller stations, which Lawson said would go dark, would likely be bought by larger PBS or NPR affiliates.

     According to its own Web site, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds more than 1,000 stations reaching virtually every household in the country.