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Pubcasting Battle: A Slight Reprieve, and a Push for Reform

Over the past few weeks I've been tracking the arguments of public broadcasting advocates fighting efforts in Congress to defund the service. This week, defenders got a bit of a reprieve, as Obama signed a two-week extension of the the deadline for the Senate and House to devise a final funding bill for this year.

That gives public broadcasting allies time to hone a tricky argument in the face of what the New York Times calls the sector's steepest challenge in years—that support for public media needs to be protected at the same time that major reforms are still required.

Megan Tady of media reform group Free Press lays the challenge out in an In these Times article:

Is our public broadcasting system great?
No. It’s good, but not great. It has the potential to soar, to branch out into other forms of media beyond broadcasting, to provide more diverse, local and in-depth reporting, and to fill the void left by a foundering corporate media. But the system is hamstrung by the lack of federal funds and an onerous and problematic appropriations process. In search of funds, public radio and television stations are increasingly turning to underwriting—often from corporations—leaving them vulnerable to both corporate and political agendas. .... We need to restore the firewall between the ebb and flow of politics and the on-the-ground reality of running public media stations. And we need to create a more diverse public media system that embraces the digital age.

Also: cut the snobbery already: In Slate, Farhad Manjoo also expresses his ambivalence about public broadcasting....especially the most vocal audience members. "I'm an NPR groupie. I listen to public radio for several hours a day—more often than I watch TV, more often than I do actual work," he writes. "There's only one thing I hate about my daily companion: my fellow listeners. Not all of them—just the ones who write in to complain whenever anything related to pop music, celebrities, technology, or other subjects that appeal to people under 40 comes across their precious wireless." He suggests that such "snoots" should stand down, and allow public radio to continue covering a broad range of topics of interest to a cross-section of listeners, including sports and pop culture.

Have we sold out our public life? The horror that such NPR listeners express at hearing yet another Charlie Sheen story might well be prompted by the glut of commercial content most Americans encounter on a daily basis. In The Guardian's OrganGrinder blog, Emily Bell—who directs Columbia's Tow Center for Digital Journalism—writes that while the BBC offers "a culturally specific way of telling the audience what is going on in the world right now. By contrast, what the US does not have is a guaranteed freeflow of high-quality information provided to a universal audience in perpetuity. It has half a dozen cable news channels of varying quality and output, but there is no guarantee they will remain free to the consumer or that they will even survive in the long term. Furthermore, the demands of the market have driven the desire for increasingly opinionated approaches, often leaving a vacuum where objectivity and simplicity of mission might thrive."

Belt-tightening ahead: In a preview of an upcoming FCC report on the Future of Media, Steven Waldman warned that those concerned about the decline of news coverage should not look to the federal government for more support. Current also reports that news industry analyist Alan Mutter advises stations to learn to live without public subsidy, and to share the wealth with hyperlocal news startups, while a Boston Globe editorial suggests that NPR take the hit in order to protect vulnerable arts and culture funding on PBS. One Washington Post op-ed describes public broadcasting as a "nice-to-have," second to other budget priorities, such as national security, social safety nets, economic growth, and clean air and water. In The National Review Bruce Edward Walker takes the argument further, dismissing NPR as a "luxury" that taxpayers can't afford.

Local and rural ramifications: The San Francisco Chronicle reports that it's actually the red states and small towns that would suffer most from reductions to the CPB's budget. On Twitter, CPB's Tom White has been tracking a steady flow of reactions from local stations and newspapers to proposed cuts. Here's a sampling:

Voters of all stripes say leave it alone: A national bipartisan survey commissioned by PBS suggests that legislators threatening to cut public broadcasting may not like the response from constituents. Responses indicate overwhelming public opposition (69% to 27%) to proposals to eliminate government funding of public broadcasting, with voters across the political spectrum opposed to such a cut, including 83% of Democrats, 69% of Independents, and 56% of Republicans. More than two-thirds (68%) of voters say that Congressional budget cutters should “find other places in the budget to save money.” 

Interestingly, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler also notes that he gets an equal number of letters criticizing PBS as too conservative as he does slamming it as too liberal. 

Elmo meets K Street: Fact-checking site PoliFact examined Senator Jim DeMint's comments about the "Muppet Lobby," and found that indeed the Sesame Workshop in particular could survive without CPB funding. Other programming that doesn't have such lucrative licensing schemes might not fare so well, though, the piece notes, like the NewsHour and local current affairs programming. In early March, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer spoke out against the GOP's "vendetta against Elmo" on the Senate floor.

The value of ordinary stories: On the StoryCorps site, Sarah Littman reflects on the overwhelming response that she and her son Joshua, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, got after their interview aired. "StoryCorps’ single largest funder is CPB," writes Littman. "The elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting would essentially be a death knell for StoryCorps, which not only has brought so much joy to so many, but in our celebrity-obsessed culture is an incredibly important reminder that every individual matters, and that there is so much to be learned from our stories if we’d only take the time to stop and really listen." See an animated version of her conversation with Joshua here.

Failing all, save it for Fluffy and Fido: A final entry into the debate this week, from an unexpected quarter—the family pets. Dubious? See it for yourself on YouTube