In Defense of Public Broadcasting

by William F. Fore

William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).

This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the Christian Century, July 5-12, 1995, pp. 668-670. Used by permission of the author.


Public Broadcasting is an essential ingredient in maintaining an informed electorate in America.

Public broadcasting was a Johnny-come-lately to the American scene, partly because the U.S. never had the equivalent of a BBC. When broadcasting developed in the 1920s, the British saw it as so important that it had to be separated from church, state and the workings of the marketplace. Accordingly, citizens paid a license fee directly to an "outside corporation," the BBC, thus preventing Parliament or anyone else from exercising program control.

In the U.S., Congress created a completely commercial system from the very beginning, rejecting proposals to designate frequencies for noncommercial groups and allowing broadcasters to charge what the traffic would bear for carrying commercials. The frequencies were simply given to stations for nothing, which was like giving them the right to mine gold on public lands. It was a gigantic and permanent public subsidy for commercial broadcasters, since the frequencies were (and according to the Supreme Court, still are) acknowledged to be common public property.

While there was plenty of political rhetoric about requiring broadcasters to serve the public interest in exchange for broadcast licenses, the requirement was never enforced. And as broadcasters grew in economic and political power during the ‘30s, the willingness and finally the ability of Congress to enforce the public-interest requirements diminished until, like the Cheshire cat’s grin, it became nothing at all.

By the ‘60s, however, TV game-show scandals and the public’s growing perception of TV as a "vast wasteland" set the stage for change. Lyndon Johnson was a staunch supporter of education, and several states had developed large public educational radio and TV systems. In 1968 Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. He thought of it as an educational tool. Others, including the Carnegie Commission, realized that it created a national communication system that could counterbalance commercial broadcasting and provide the kind of robust discussion impossible in a commercially driven system.

But Congress and Johnson made a fatal mistake. When they established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to insulate public radio and TV from political pressures, they failed to guarantee insulated funding. As a public-interest representative involved in the creation of the Public Broadcasting Act, I remember the anguish we felt at failing to get through Congress a 5 percent tax on TV and radio sets—something like the gasoline tax for roads which was protected from congressional raiding. The tax was defeated largely because labor unions objected that it was regressive—it taxed the poor relatively more than the rich. This objection played into the hands of those who did not want a strong alternative to commercial broadcasting.

Since then, every presidential administration and Congress has attempted to slash funding, primarily because public television—the Public Broadcasting Service—and National Public Radio would not go along to get along. Richard Nixon was particularly vexed that he could not control such documentaries as "The Banks and the Poor," which revealed how banks’ lending policies were increasing people’s impoverishment.

Two years after the creation of CPB, Nixon instructed his staff to see to it that "all funds for public broadcasting be cut immediately." His veto reduced congressional funding of CPB, thereby forcing public broadcasters into the arms of major corporations. Ever since, public radio and television have

been more dependent on the largesse of some of the world’s richest corporations—whose goals have more to do with burnishing their public images than with serving the public interest.

The percentage of public television’s budget that comes from the federal government fell from 26 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 1990, while corporate funding increased from 11 percent to 17 percent. Pressures to commercialize public broadcasting continue and have created a classic Catch-22. If PBS and NPR were to depend entirely on congressional support, they would be out of business. But if they accept commercial sponsors and grovel through public "pledge weeks," then they are accused of selling out. They are damned if they do, defunct if they don’t.

Even this dismal situation has turned out to be relatively good news. The really bad news is that the political right wing is not satisfied with emasculating the public broadcasting system. They want none at all. In January 1995 the Washington Post quoted Newt Gingrich as saying that public broadcasting is a "sandbox for the rich" which should not be paid for by "poor workers." Gingrich told GOP staffers: "I don’t know why they call it public broadcasting. As far as I am concerned, there’s nothing public about it; it’s an elitist enterprise." As for his own intentions:

"The power of the speaker is the power of recognition, and I will not recognize any proposal that will appropriate money for the CPB."

The charge that public broadcasting is elitist is nonsense. In the first place, it is not true that such programs as MacNeil-Lehrer Report, Washington Week in Review, Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion appeal only to affluent Americans. Research shows that people of all socioeconomic strata tune to both PBS and NPR; 40 million people listen to NPR each week—hardly a tiny "elite."

Second, to believe that people with less means are ipso facto incapable of being interested in certain programs is worse than elitist; it is brutish and dangerous. It’s a way of saying: If you aren’t rich, you probably don’t have the aesthetic capacity to enjoy a classical music broadcast or the intelligence to follow a Nova program about the human brain.

Third, the right wing makes an error that has long been used to justify commercial broadcasting: it confuses the public with the market, and equates citizens with consumers. Public broadcasting at its best seeks to provide programming to meet the diverse needs and interests of the entire citizenry. Commercial broadcasting’s sole object is to deliver potential consumers to the sponsor, and "programming" is anything that can attract the greatest number of them at any given time. Public and commercial broadcasting are in two different businesses; only the media are the same.

Fourth, the suggestion that public broadcasting is on the far left is erroneous. A study of NPR’s Morning Edition during the first Bush administration, for example, revealed that of 616 high-ranking political figures quoted 57 percent were Republicans or high-ranking Bush administration members, and 42 percent were Democrats. Among think tanks quoted on NPR, the most citations were of the Brookings Institution, Kevin Phillips’s American Political Research and the pro-business American Enterprise Institute—none known for leftist views.

Finally, the actual cost of public broadcasting is minuscule in comparison with other "public" activities. In fiscal 1995 the total federal operating budget for the CPB is $286 million, while $200 million yearly is allocated to military bands. The CPB’s $286 million is about one-fiftieth of 1 percent of the federal budget (the defense budget takes up 16.6 percent). The federal subsidy of CPB comes to less than one tax dollar per citizen; the subsidy for Japan’s public broadcasting system is 20 times as much.

However, the 14 percent of CPB’s budget that the federal government supplies is essential, both because of the money’s multiplying effect (it enables matching funds from many other sources) and because a further trimming would be catastrophic, as anyone who has ever had to trim a little from a tight budget knows.

Political conservatives are entitled to their views. But others are entitled to theirs as well. And there’s the rub. How can we discuss all sides of issues if there is no media platform available for free and open—and sometimes disturbing—discussion? The public broadcasting issue transcends the liberal-conservative controversy. What is at stake is whether our society intends to maintain a reasonable amount of open and robust debate about issues of consequence.

If we cut off public broadcasting, we will lose one of the few platforms devoted by its very nature to informing, entertaining and enlarging horizons, independent of economic or political control. And consider what would happen, for example, in the lives of children, especially ghetto children, if PBS were eliminated. There would be no Sesame Street, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Reading Rainbow or Mr. Rogers—all now available to every home, regardless of ability to pay.

There is one other factor of which most people are, thus far, unaware. A number of recent technological breakthroughs, through digitalized compression techniques, will at some point allow every television station to offer six or seven channels in the spectrum space now occupied by a single one. Very soon every TV channel—including PBS stations—will increase enormously in value. In March 1995 the FCC auctioned off a few of its newer and far less valuable high-frequency channels for mobile telephones and realized a mind-boggling $7.7 billion. In light of that sale it’s reasonable to conclude that if the FCC decides to auction off some or parts of existing TV frequencies, the value of public broadcasting’s 351 TV channels could be worth countless billions.

The right wing's response is to attempt to privatize public broadcasting. This would get rid of those irritating noncommercial news and information programs, and complete the monopoly of private networks, resulting in a total commercialization of information. Each year Senate Republicans put forward bills to sell the entire public broadcasting system. Since even now owning a commercial TV channel is like having a license to print money, there are plenty of prospective buyers. Rupert Murdoch needs stations to fill out his Fox Network. Jamie Keilner, the head of Warner Brothers, has announced that he wants to buy time on PBS stations to air his programs. Owning the stations outright would be much better.

Interestingly, the right wing never challenges the huge subsidies that taxpayers already provide private radio and TV. The truth is that commercial stations pay absolutely nothing for their federally protected frequency assignments. And Congress has decreed that corporate advertising on radio and TV is a fully deductible business expense, which means that every advertising dollar costs a company only 30 cents.

Fortunately, the public senses public broadcasting’s importance. A poll in January 1995 showed that 84 percent want federal funding for public broadcasting maintained or increased (80 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of independents and 90 percent of Democrats). And last year 6.8 million Americans gave some $390 million of their own cash to their public stations—more than the total federal subsidy.

There are ways to solve the funding crisis without adding to the federal deficit. One solution would be to dedicate to public broadcasting just 10 percent of the federal take from those high-frequency auctions; from the one auction held so far, the sum would be $770 million—more than twice the annual federal subsidy. Another solution would be to charge a modest fee for broadcast licenses (we pay a fee for every other license); charging less than 1 percent on earnings would provide millions for PBS and NPR and only modestly reduce broadcasting profits.

Yet another strategy would be to reduce the tax write-off for advertising; a 20 percent reduction of that corporate bonanza could produce more than $4 billion annually for public broadcasting. And the original idea of a 5 percent levy on TV sets would collect about $450 million a year. But these strategies have very little hope of being realized, largely because the very media which could generate public support for them are almost totally controlled by commercial interests which will see to it that the public never receives this message.

Reinhold Niebuhr told us that we must know what is going on before considering what we ought to do. But how shall we know without a messenger? Because public broadcasting is one of society’s best hopes for disseminating information and penetrating the clouds of commercial obscurantism, support from every political quarter should rally behind our public system.