Maryland congressman aims to defund NPR, ITVS

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Gage Skidmore/flickr

Rep. Andy Harris speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who railed against public media content during a House subcommittee meeting in March, tells Current that he wants Congress to defund NPR and the Independent Television Service.

During CPB President Pat Harrison’s testimony on public media’s federal funding request, Harris accused CPB of pushing an “agenda” with ITVS films such as The New Black, a documentary about the African-American community’s debate over gay marriage. Admitting he had not seen the films, Harris also cited Kumu Hina, focusing on a Hawaiian transgender woman, and Baby Mama High, about a pregnant teenager. All of the films he mentioned were funded by ITVS and aired on Independent Lens, PBS’s documentary showcase.

ITVS was established by Congress in 1988 in legislation requiring CPB to establish an independent program service “to expand the diversity and innovativeness of programming available to public broadcasting.” ITVS was also tasked to “further the federal public broadcasting policy of encouraging the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”

Harrison responded to Harris’ comments by offering to discuss public media’s work with the congressman, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees CPB’s annual appropriation. The two met in his Capitol Hill office late last month, Harris said. But that conversation didn’t seem to satisfy his concerns about what he sees as controversial public media content.

Harris has represented Maryland’s 1st district, which covers the Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, since 2011. He’s one of 30 Republicans on the 55-member House committee.

Current interviewed Harris by phone Friday morning.

Current: You expressed concerns about federal funding for CPB at the subcommittee hearing. Did Pat Harrison’s subsequent testimony change your feelings about that?

Harris: I sat down with her at some length. I still have concerns about the need for as much funding as we currently provide. The media climate has changed since CPB was formed. There’s a far greater selection of content on both radio and TV than ever before. The need for NPR, for instance, is probably very limited — as is the need to fund ITVS, when there’s no accountability because of the agreement between CPB and ITVS.

When did you meet and what did you discuss?

Last week for over 30 minutes in my office. We went over the history and mission of CPB, the constraints they’re under, the structure of how they fund various stations and programming. I’m convinced we don’t need that level of funding. My areas of greatest concerns are the continued funding of NPR and ITVS.

Why ITVS?

I think CPB could fulfill its function without funding ITVS. Its products are controversial, and there’s no reason to be using taxpayer funding on those.

You seemed most concerned at the hearing that CPB had an agenda. Could you talk a bit more about what you meant, beyond the independent films that you mentioned?

From my conversation with Ms. Harrison, I learned that the agenda isn’t there at CPB, but it’s at NPR and ITVS. Again, support for NPR is both direct and indirect by money to stations who buy NPR programming. We have to figure out a way to limit federal funds going to NPR and ITVS.

What specifically do you mean by “an agenda”?

Not in the mainstream. And in the case of NPR, a blatantly liberal agenda. And ITVS is funding programming not in the mainstream.

The films you mentioned at the hearing, how did those come to your attention?

My staff looked through programming funded by CPB and found summaries of the films right on the website. Some are pretty objectionable to a large group of mainstream Americans. There’s really no need for public funding of it. If independent film producers want to produce that, fine, go find funds other than taxpayer money. NPR, likewise, can raise its own money.

What does public media do that you support?

I agree that some of the children’s content and some of the cultural content made available to the American public wouldn’t be on commercial broadcasting. So I agree with those.

Again, my problems are really on the TV side of things with regard to programming. I understand the need for some public radio stations in some areas that would otherwise be underserved. But those cases are probably fewer than CPB would agree with. We need to re-evaluate where federal taxpayers’ money is spent.

How does the Appropriations Committee feel about CPB funding at this point? It received support in the fiscal 2017 budget, but the FY18 budget is coming up soon, too.

The president has called on Congress to look carefully at the discretionary budget. We have over half a trillion dollars in deficits. We need to look for areas where we can maintain a lot of what needs to be done, but not necessarily everything. We need to look at areas like NPR and ITVS. The mission of CPB can be accomplished without funding those.

Do you interact often with Maryland Public Television?

I’ve been there, I’ve visited with management. I understand their mission. But some things shown on that station are out of the mainstream. I disagree with some of the programming.

What can or should public broadcasting do to be more attractive to Republican members of Congress for funding?

My bias is, a lot of what done by public broadcasting can be accomplished in the commercial sector. There are some areas that can’t or wouldn’t be, but that’s a diminishing number of things as commercial products increase.

This is a difficult situation for public broadcasting to be in. They have to work very hard to prove that they deserve federal taxpayer funding. One way to start is to begin to recognize that funding controversial, out-of-mainstream programming is probably not going to endear them to people like me who have to decide where federal dollars go.

You sound very adamant about ITVS and NPR. Would you go so far as to defund them? Sponsor legislation to defund, or achieve it another way?

Yes, for ITVS that’s certainly true. That may or may not require legislation. We can certainly do that through an appropriations measure. We should put an end to that kind of controversial programming. It can be done through the appropriations process. We can say that direct funding cannot to go to ITVS. But that’s subject to annual discussion. We could put an end to funding permanently through statute. And it’s probably time to do that.

Are there any other public broadcasting projects that you support?

There is a valid role for public broadcasting to participate in the election process. They sponsor debates, and that can be done to a greater extent. MPT chose not to have debates for all congressional races. That’s not a good decision on their part. They accept public funding, and then they wanted to pick and choose what races to hold debates for. Because it’s federal funding, that shouldn’t be an internal decision. They should have debates for all federal races, for instance. If public television wants to demonstrate a need to lawmakers, yes, that’s a worthy cause and not likely to be duplicated in the private sector.

How about the role stations play in public safety?

Honestly, most of those agreements can be accomplished with commercial broadcasters.

  • Paul Cook

    Thank you for providing the other side of the funding debate.

  • TomKaz

    Good, fair interview.

  • Recommended for all viewers like us.

  • Allan Rosen-Ducat

    There are a couple of points of view that concern me about Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md) responses.
    First PBS has been a highly valuable platform. Of course Harris focuses only on the costs of the program and not the broad nonpartisan programing that NPR broadcasts across our nation. Harris speaks of inappropriate content and out of the mainstream, does he have supporting data that this content has low viewer numbers?

    Harris seems to be hiding behind his budget observations, he should have more courage, and say what is really the issue, His religious views are guiding his attack on free speech. The suggestion that the same service could be provided by for profit private sector broadcasters is a joke.

    The broadcast industry has had to morph to compete with cable and streaming services. Even with these changes, there are very few is any for profit broadcasters who will program the type of content that NPR will. As soon as you add the issue of ROI or viewer retention the revenue issue become the great corrupting force. Harris throws around the idea that the main stream is not interested in the perverted attack on their senses and beliefs.

    I would bet that NBC wouldn’t touch a four part series on Opioids and the destruction of a generation.
    The consumer entertainment broadcast industry serves entertainment, NPR supports the broadcasting of programing which is vitally important for all citizens to have access to.

    Harris hides his head in the sand with his vision obscured by religious blinders.
    Limiting diverse commentary, is the same as limiting free speech.
    Rep Harris, you do understand why it is important to maintain, “a separation of church and state”as well as enhancing the dissemination of diverse view points?

    Harris needs to get off his religious horse and realize that more then half of American think
    he and his religious zealots are bat sh%t crazy.

    • Paul Cook

      …he and his religious zealots are bat sh%t crazy.

      Any chance you could be a little more tolerant?

      • Allan Rosen-Ducat

        Absolutely my apologies, the funny thing I am soooo tolerant.
        I am having a hard time holding back the frustration.
        Thank you for calling me on it.

    • TomKaz

      Hmmm. I suppose my local public radio station is filtering out the “broad nonpartisan programming that NPR broadcasts”, because I sure don’t hear it.

      It seems Rep Harris understands the importance of a separating media and state. When a media organization is dependent on government funding, they tend to support a political ideology and political parties that promote big government and big spending.

  • Steveski

    SO ITVS was set up by Congress with a mandate to “to expand the diversity and innovativeness of programming available to public broadcasting.” Just don’t be TOO diverse and show things like transgender people or pregnant teenagers. Got it!

  • Pingback: Oh Brother: Rep. Andy Harris Working to Defund NPR()

  • Andrew LaPorta

    “OH MY”. Reading all the previous comments is hilarious. “Content has low viewer numbers”??????? Nielsen Topline Ratings For Subscribing Radio Stations and The Radio Research Consortium (RRC)/Nielsen Ratings is all theoretical and does not answer the who, what, when, where or how and never the “why in their Time Spent Listening, or TSL, and suggest TSL is only an estimate of the number of quarter-hours the average person spends listening during a specified time period. There is no credible proven scientific evidence or data to support their claims, which invalidates CPB requirements known as Audience Service Criteria (ASC). Same s–t with T.V. viewers. Separation of Powers in Government?? Oh MY. MY, MY. The President gets to choose members of CPB Board of Directors, who align with his political machine & religiosity and purse strings. This is called “convenient capitalism” that truly works, depending who is on the receiving end of all this “corporate welfare”.