Here we go again. The Trump administration’s latest budget proposal would shutter CPB. It’s Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” meets Groundhog Day.
The battle over funding public broadcasting is always on the agenda when Republicans control the White House. And thanks in part to America’s Public Television Stations, public TV’s savvy lobbying organization, we’ve always garnered support from enough red-state legislators to secure our speck of funding from the feds.
Indeed, public broadcasting’s advocates recently celebrated a historic victory — $20 million dollars more for CPB, the first funding increase in a decade. But now the President wants that gift horse back. We in public media must try to get the corks back in the champagne bottles. The whole charade is demoralizing and distracting.
This week a couple hundred public media executives and board members are making their annual pilgrimage to Washington to remind members of Congress of the irreplaceable value of public broadcasting in their communities. After two days of advocacy training, APTS summit attendees will converge on Capitol Hill to deliver a well-rehearsed message: that PBS was once again named the most trusted institution in the country. That PBS Kids is the only universal preschool education freely available to all children. That CPB’s American Graduate initiative boosted the graduation rate and Veterans Coming Home bridged the military-civilian divide. And don’t forget that stations are helping local public safety officials with emergency alerts.
But don’t count on these lobbyists to mention accountability journalism like NPR host Mary Louise Kelly’s brave confrontational interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was a proud moment for public media, and millions of listeners agreed, many donating to their local stations.
So, will this year’s Hill trek produce the same results as previous years? I’m worried. We are living through a time like no other, when racist radio host Rush Limbaugh gets a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a standing ovation in Congress. WWFRD? What would Fred Rogers say? We can’t know.
But one of public media’s living legends has used his perch to speak truth to power. In December 2019, documentary producer Ken Burns joined 750 historians who signed a letter declaring that if President Trump’s “flagrant abuses of power,” including the Ukraine affair, don’t “rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does.”
All but one Republican in the U.S. Senate exonerated Trump, whose words and actions are antithetical to public media’s values of truth, kindness, curiosity, decency, inclusion. By modeling these values, we are part of the resistance.
In this broken democracy, protecting our public media may require bolder strategies than business as usual. Perhaps we’ll need a million-member march on Washington.
Certainly CPB, PBS and NPR cannot call for mass mobilization, but famous fans like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lizzo and Tom Hanks could, if Trump gets his way this time.