The San Francisco Chronicle: Public Broadcasting's Value

January 24, 2011
In The News

By John Diaz

Ken Burns, master of long-form documentaries such as "Civil War" and "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," can recognize a plot twist when he sees one. Burns is concerned that one of America's other great ideas - public broadcasting - is getting caught up in a narrative in which ideological objectives and budget constraints are creating a climate that poses an increasingly serious threat to the relatively modest level of federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

"I think we ought to just take pause and reflect on what this extra-marketplace programming means to us," Burns said in a recent telephone interview.

Within days of our conversation, the threat to federal funding for public broadcasting took an ominous turn. Late last week, a group of conservative Republicans putting together a "Spending Reduction Act" to cut $2.5 trillion over the next decade included the elimination of all federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - about $420 million a year - in their proposal.

Interestingly, both Burns and the most determined congressional critics of funding for public broadcasting agree on two fundamental points: One, the amount in question is minuscule, a grain of sand, in the context of federal deficits. They also agree that federal funding is a relatively small portion of public-broadcasting budgets, perhaps as little as 2 percent of National Public Radio's annual spending.

Where the two sides diverge is whether the age of modern media - with the Internet, cable television and even cell-phone access to information - eclipses or enhances the original need for government to support public broadcasting.

Burns makes the case that programming has become reduced to the "fluff between the commercials" in marketplace-driven media. Documentaries such as "Civil War" or "The National Parks" or "Baseball" - to name three of his exquisitely textured series - would never have had a chance to air on commercial television, he suggested. The beauty of his documentaries, beyond their storytelling quality, is their integrity: There's no need to romanticize or embellish history to attract ratings. In-depth reporting and analysis found on "Frontline" and "PBS NewsHour" could not compete with the shout fests on Fox Newsor MSNBC for advertising dollars. Burns said the relatively small investment in public broadcasting produces "a dividend we can't do without, especially in this commercial era."

Burns' arguments resonate with all of us who savor his documentaries or set our alarm clocks to "Morning Edition," and often find ourselves staying in bed a few extra minutes in our fascination to learn about something new or unusual in science, business or a nation on the other side of the planet. NPR fills a void in even the most radio-rich regions; in rural areas it is a lifeline to reliable information.

However, Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican and author of legislation (HR68) to defund public broadcasting, called it "a luxury" that has outlived its original purpose and has become indefensible when the nation is running a deficit.

Lamborn, whose similar bill went nowhere last year in the Democratic-controlled Congress, said NPR's firing of Juan Williamslast fall has fortified the resolve of conservatives to cut off federal support. Williams drew heat for suggesting on Fox News that he became nervous when he boarded planes with passengers in Muslim garb. Conservatives slammed the firing as a case of political sensitivities run amok. Republicans now control the House.

"I think there is a limited ideological component to some of NPR's programming, and taxpayers shouldn't have to support any ideology they disagree with - whether liberal or conservative or whatever," Lamborn said in a phone interview last week.

NPR obviously handled the Williams firing in a ham-handed way. Its real mistake, however, was its failure to draw the line long ago as Williams seesawed between the cultures of Fox News and NPR, and seemed to lose the distinction between attitude and analysis that NPR strived to maintain. Williams' adaptation to the Fox News style of combative commentary was rewarded with a seven-figure deal.

Americans who want a depth of programming that doesn't necessarily produce celebrity hosts or big ratings or high profits will now have to fight to keep Congress from cutting off funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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