In the interests of full disclosure – and as a disclaimer of self-interest – let me state upfront that I listen to WNYC, my National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate every morning and many evenings, and I contribute financially, faithfully each year and to the best of my ability. I rely on, and value, the news reporting capabilities of WNYC and NPR, and I try to show it through those contributions; as a supporter of WNYC, I also know that part of my contribution goes to support NPR. There, I’ve written it down for all to read; make what assumptions you like.
Still, when a few well-meaning people recently sent me an online petition from MoveOn.org to “Save NPR and PBS once and for all,” I nearly hit the roof. Click that link and see for yourself that the MoveOn.org petition says, in its entirety, nothing of substance. In fact, here’s what it does say:
Save NPR and PBS once and for all
President Bush just proposed drastic cuts to NPR and PBS. We've stopped similar cuts in the past, but enough is enough: With the new Congress, we can make sure this never happens again. Sign this petition to Congress.
“Congress must save NPR and PBS once and for all. Congress should guarantee permanent funding and independence from partisan meddling.”
As of this writing, the page – indeed, the MoveOn.org site as a whole – provides not one iota of more detailed information about whether these funding cuts are serious, who proposed them, in which budget cycle they are set to occur, or anything else; it simply proclaims that the cuts are happening. All links within MoveOn.org (such as this one, listing current campaigns) point to the page with the petition, but none list the specific details of these proposed budget cuts.
My own research into the threats to public broadcasting funds proved inconclusive on this point. Snopes.com, the myth-busting website, has a page that says it’s true cuts are threatened – but the page is dated June 2006. A search of articles in The Washington Post turns up nothing within a 60 day range, and an archive search lists the most recent articles on this topic as being from 2005. The New York Times site turns up much of the same: one article from April 2006 about PBS stations running their own ads on this issue, while the remainder of the articles date from 2005 or earlier. Hmmm; this hardly feels like a pressing issue.
For those readers not yet with us in February 2007 (as I write this), President George W. Bush recently proposed a $2.9 trillion budget for the next year, ludicrously promising to resolve the U.S. deficit within five years, all while keeping those tax cuts for the rich and famous he so dearly loves. Oh, and Bush’s follies (and our pain) in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to cost $145 billion in 2008 and another $50 billion in 2009, to say nothing of the $163 billion spent this year, or the billions spent in the previous three.
I recite all this not to suggest that the little bit of funding for PBS and NPR should be otherwise allocated, given these problems. Not at all. Rather, I think these (and many other government spending numbers too numerous to list here) are important because, while MoveOn.org allocates resources towards this “save PBS / NPR!” issue (among its many others) it is worth keeping in mind how absolutely value-less this campaign really is.
First of all, there is the worthlessness of online petitions generally – and more specifically, the worthlessness of Yet Another Online Petition from an organization that has made these its bread-and-butter outreach program since the last presidential election cycle. If you would like to read more about this issue, I strongly suggest Barbara Mikkelson’s excellent essay on Snopes.com, which addresses a range of concerns about these petitions. Perhaps you, dear reader, have fewer politically-active friends than I, but I am quite tired of people e-mailing me such nonsense.
Then there is the bait-and-switch element to these proposed PBS/NPR funding cuts. I wrote about this back in June 2005 (Don’t Be Diverted To Sesame Street), and I firmly believe this is still true: conservatives attack the system because it makes for great politics. It stokes up their political base while driving the lefties nuts – so the lefties start circling the wagons to protect public broadcasting’s funding scraps (which is what they are, really, at under $1 billion dollars in a $2.9 trillion annual budget), which naturally leaves other – bigger – problems unresolved.
Those other, unresolved issues? Both parties have completely failed to address the problem of funding Social Security. Health insurance is a huge issue, with some 50 million Americans lacking coverage, but most Democrat’s plans (those in Congress, and those running for president) are as pie-in-the-sky as the GOP’s idea of investing your Social Security dollars in the stock market. The Iraq war continues, and while the Democrats managed to wrest back control of Congress based on precisely this issue, no one on the left is any smarter than the folks on the right, to judge by the abject failure of anyone, anywhere, to articulate a workable solution to this rather intractable problem. In fact, it sometimes seems like the only thing that Congressional Democrats can do successfully is save PBS and NPR, while the GOP keeps pushing along those tax cuts and chipping away at our civil liberties.
Last but not least, MoveOn.org should be held to account for the financial and fiscal stupidity of their petition: they do not explain what would it mean to “guarantee permanent funding” for PBS and NPR. The money has to be based on something, and come from somewhere, but MoveOn.org does not attempt to prove that such funding is affordable, address the possible changes in budgetary needs over the course of many years, or the changing technologies that might affect the costs of PBS and NPR operations. We are left to imagine what this Federal allocation will be in, say, 2020 – and to assume that public broadcasters do not need the kind of accountability and oversight of other Federally funded programs. Unmentioned, too, is the fact that the tax-deductibility of contributions to these stations is a very real (and very large) government subsidy. Perhaps the people who consume these PBS and NPR programs should be asked to step forward and increase their level of support to help sustain the system?
I grew up watching Sesame Street, Electric Company, and so on, and I hope my (as yet unborn) children will have a chance to do the same some day; likewise, I hope to be able to keep listening to NPR news into my dotage. We live in a dramatically wealthy – if poorly managed – country, and unquestionably our budget should be big enough to accommodate the little bits of money needed to keep these programs, and their broadcasters, on the air. But propaganda is propaganda, whether for the right or the left; spreading such nonsense helps no one. And if a petition has any value at all, I’d rather see such efforts devoted to addressing the many big challenges facing Americans, the threats to our mortal soul that look certain to bankrupt the nation and stall our future. Under that kind of optimistic scenario, one thing is for sure: no amount of lefty handwringing will be able to save public broadcasting then.