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The Perception Problem

The move to "defund NPR" has been about denying member stations choice.

You might be surprised, as we were, to view the results of a CNN/Opinion Research poll released Friday, April 1. A survey of more than 1,000 adult Americans last month indicated that seven percent believe public broadcasting funding accounts for more than half the federal budget. Sixteen percent think more than one-fifth of the federal budget is directed toward NPR and PBS. Seven in ten Americans think more than one percent of their tax dollars are used for public broadcasting.

The actual percentage is so small, we had to look it up. In fiscal year 2010, the federal budget was $3.456 trillion. The allocation to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the private, non-profit corporation that funds NPR and PBS stations, was $506 million. That amounts to about .00014 percent of the federal budget. One seventieth of one percent.

CPB funding is a tiny line item in the federal budget — grossly disproportionate to any number of other spending programs that have been discussed far less on the House floor or in the news media — but, in the budgets of more than 1,300 public broadcasting stations, including WFIU, federal support is essential. And in recent weeks, it has been under attack like never before.

Federal funding for CPB has been threatened in Congress numerous times, but here’s how H.R. 1076, which passed the House on March 17, was without precedent: it directly affected station choice. In essence, the bill “to defund NPR” would have minimal effect on NPR (only 4% of NPR’s budget comes directly from federal sources), but would have drastic effects on local stations, particularly rural ones with small populations whose operating budgets often rely heavily on federal funds.  H.R. 1076 would take away from local stations the right to use federal funds to purchase programs from external sources (not just NPR’s): that could mean, on your local station, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk, This American Life, A Prairie Home Companion, Performance Today, BBC World Service, and in some cases, locally produced programs. And, through legislation, the bill would in effect empower legislators to make programming decisions on behalf of the American public.  This scenario was exactly the one that the original Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 was crafted to avoid – placing a firewall between politicians and journalism, so that the political interests could not “buy” journalistic reporting.

Amidst all the bad faith and misunderstanding, the CNN poll carries a glimmer of hope: 53 percent of those polled would like to see federal funding for public broadcasting maintained or increased. You can make your opinion on this topic known to legislators. Was H.R. 1076 acceptable to you? Do you want to see similar legislation move through the Senate and onto the President’s desk?

You can speak your mind at 170MillionAmericans.org.