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OTHER VIEW
Other View: Public broadcasting shouldn't get a handout from taxpayers anymore

Now that President Donald Trump has unveiled his budget and put public broadcasters on notice that he plans to zero-out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, alarm bells have gone off. The hashtag #JusticeForBigBird started trending, and the CPB (I currently sit on its board of directors) defended itself in a statement that read, in part: “The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions—all for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”

But this defense ignores today’s dramatically changed media environment. Public media now rarely offers anything that Americans can’t get from for-profit media or that can’t be supported privately.

The president’s budget is, as he might say, an opening bid. So, by the time a budget is passed, odds are that CPB will still be left standing. But if Congress actually seeks to make a meaningful cut to the $445 million annual appropriation for public television and radio, it will be tough for the CPB and its constituent networks, PBS and NPR, to make the case that they still deserve the money—even though, according to a PBS survey, 70 percent of Trump voters don’t favor eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting.

They will have a hard time arguing that at a time of near-limitless viewing and listening choices—and with Big Bird already migrated to pay cable—there’s still a market failure: a dearth of offerings of for-profit TV, radio and the Internet that necessitate a continued federal subsidy.

And they’ll have to acknowledge, and take steps to correct, the reality that public broadcasting appeals to a narrow regional and socioeconomic audience. Arguing as a 7-year-old valiantly did at Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) recent town hall that Trump “is deleting all the parks and PBS Kids just to make a wall” just won’t cut it.

It was 1967 when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established “to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation.” In an era in which television was described as a “vast wasteland,” CPB would “encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities to viewers” that wasn’t then available via commercial outlets.

But if that’s the mission, it’s mission accomplished now in the private sector. For-profit media produce programming that is racially and ideologically diverse. Audiences once considered underserved—whether that means children of color, political conservatives, devotees of independent film or science geeks—can find what they’re looking for on commercial radio and TV. Yes, public media makes outstanding contributions, from the films of Ken Burns to the enterprising foreign reporting of NPR. But one cannot assume that absent federal funding, there would be no sources of support for “diversity and excellence.”

Fifty years ago, after all, was before 24-hour-a-day news, premium cable, satellite radio and the Internet, when broadcast was dominated by the major networks, and radio was moribund. Today we live in a golden age of commercially produced original American drama, comedy, news and reality programming.

Programming that features diverse casting and diverse storytelling can be found on a multitude of free and pay services—ranging from ABC’s lighthearted but thought-provoking sitcom “Blackish” to Netflix’s critically acclaimed, hard-hitting “13th,” a documentary about “race, justice and mass incarceration.” Netflix has the film “The Wise Kids,” a well-reviewed story of a gay evangelical Christian high school student. HBO now airs new episodes of “Sesame Street.”

In the past, if viewers wanted a news alternative to the big three networks, the only place they could turn was PBS’s “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” Today there are the major cable outlets (Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC) and their smaller siblings (Fox Business Channel, HLN, CNBC). There’s a proliferation of partisan cable news programming, ranging from right-leaning Newsmax to left-leaning VICE. Nearly every point of view and every type of music can be heard on SiriusXM satellite radio. It was PBS that once had to be the vehicle for Julia Child; today she’d be a staple on the Food Network. There’s no reason “Downton Abbey” couldn’t have run on BBC America.

All this might matter less if it were clear that public media was a preferred choice of a broad cross-section of the American public. Doing so was part of the original mission. The Public Broadcasting Act charged public broadcasters “to encourage noncommercial educational radio and television broadcast programing which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States.” Instead, public media today looks far too much like a niche programming service for a left-leaning, upmarket urban constituency.

Of the top 10 most popular NPR affiliates, only one (Atlanta) is found in the South or Southwest. The major, “producing stations” of television programming—locals that provide the lion’s share of content broadcast on smaller affiliates—are based in liberal bastions Boston, New York and Washington. NPR, in data expected to appeal to financial underwriters, boasts that some 58 percent of NPR listeners are college graduates, and that its listeners are “74 percent more likely to earn more than $100,000.” (One NPR slide deck boasts that its programming reaches “cultural connoisseurs” likely to drink four glasses of wine per week.) The appeal makes a virtue of its elite demographics, noting NPR “attracts an audience most notably distinguished by its educational excellence and professional success.” In 2014, Pew Research found that “The clear majority of audience (67 percent) is left-of-center.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless your statutory mandate is to reach and inform the American citizenry broadly.

That funding of public media has become a partisan issue suggests a failure on its part. If there is a coverage bias at work it shows itself in story selection, particularly: the Dakota Access Pipeline protests rather than the economic benefits of fracking. Ideally, public media would cover these evenly.

One area where public media does, increasingly, provide something the market doesn’t is local news and public affairs programming. In recent years, an increasing number of NPR stations (New York, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis) have moved to a news and public affairs format, providing local news coverage at a time when local newspapers are withering and the ranks of state capital and city hall reporters have been decimated. This type of coverage would seem an ideal function for public media and a way, potentially, to reach a wider variety of viewers and listeners. It may, indeed, be a rationale for ongoing government support, but could just as well point toward a way for public media to thrive in a post-subsidy era.

Good local programming helps local stations—which are independent, nonprofit entities—raise local funds, just as national programming attracts private-sector underwriting. Already, according to NPR, its member stations only rely on government funding for 14 percent of revenue. CPB distributes “community service grants” to local stations, but much of that money winds up being recycled to PBS and NPR for the right to air national programming. This year, 40 percent of NPR’s more than $200 million in revenue came from local stations. In 2014, PBS assessed member stations $186 million, a large chunk of the $223 million distributed that year in community service grants for local television stations. Money for local stations, in other words, doesn’t all stay local.

Apart from the budget process, the president should use his appointment prerogative for the CPB’s three open board seats to steer public media in a different direction. That will continue to be my mission as a board member—encouraging public media to adapt to a new environment. Public media must demonstrate that it can serve truly diverse audiences in ways the private market can’t. Otherwise, the system’s budget will deserve to be zeroed out.


Editorial
Our View: Cheers and Jeers

Cheer

Republicans in the legislature are trying to find ways to cut taxes this session. In the House, the GOP wants to make a small cut to income taxes, a plan that would benefit the wealthiest Idahoans the most.

The Senate on Thursday introduced its plan: a surprise move to repeal the state’s tax on groceries. We think that’s a much fairer way to bring tax relief.

All Idahoans pay a 6 percent tax on groceries. Killing the grocery tax will help people struggling to afford food, local farmers who sell direct to consumers, and cities in border communities where residents sometimes drive to a neighboring state to shop to avoid Idaho’s food tax.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter isn’t a fan of repealing the grocery tax. But he stopped short of threatening to veto the plan when he sent a letter to Republican leaders this week.

Legislators have just one week left to find a solution. Will it be the House’s income tax relief, or the Senate’s repeal of the grocery tax? Or nothing at all?

Jeer

Jeers to the Cassia County School District, which this week announced it was relocating the popular principal of Oakley’s junior and senior high schools.

The school board met in executive session to discuss the move and then provided almost no reasoning to parents for why Michael Corbett was being reassigned to a vice-principal position at two Burley elementary schools. Even Corbett said he wasn’t quite sure why he was being moved.

Parents, students and community members were understandably upset and protested Thursday, waving signs in front of the Cassia County School District office.

We understand that school districts often have to make difficult decisions when it comes to putting the right administrators in the right places. But it was downright wrong not to be more transparent about its reasoning.

Cheer

When one of the world’s most awesome natural wonders is in your backyard, sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted.

But Shoshone Falls isn’t one to be ignored.

Flows have surpassed 18,000 cubic feet per second, their highest in two decades. That’s drawing hundreds of onlookers a day to the falls. The city opened its fee-collection booth on Thursday. Officials expect massive crowds over spring break.

Experts say the stunning flows will continue for at least the next month. Don’t miss your chance to see a truly stunning natural spectacle at its zenith. It might be another 20 years before the falls are this impressive again.


Mailbag
Letters of Thanks

IVC thanks United Way

Thank you for the 2017 funds awarded to Interlink Volunteer Caregivers! IVC appreciates the donors involved in annual employer and employee campaigns as well as individual contributors throughout south-central Idaho. Be assured that your donation to the United Way of SCID will have a significant impact helping our local community neighbors, friends and families. United Way’s Community Council and Board of Director’s generosity will allow IVC to help more elderly, chronically ill and disabled individuals. Funds will allow people to remain independent while living in their own homes. IVC volunteers are the backbone of our organization. Without them, we would not be able to help those who need us! Another thank you goes to United Way Director Bill Maikranz, who is always reaching out and listening to local nonprofit agencies to help with challenges, solutions and obstacles that we face. Bill is very involved in numerous community events making connections in order to help us all. Bill is a real asset to our community and the United Way! On behalf of IVC’s volunteers, clients and Board of Directors, thank you for believing in IVC and the people we serve!

Sincerely,

Edie Schab

Executive director, Interlink Volunteer Caregivers

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