Don’t Throw PBS Under the Bus

I almost died last month.  Had I gone home from the hospital (as directed) hours after an outpatient diagnostic procedure, I would have bled to death.  It’s as simple as that.  The chronically late and, as it turns out, careless surgeon apparently “compromised” an artery, blaming the severe knots of pain that I experienced minutes after the procedure (early evening) on my “low threshold for pain.”  I found out weeks later from my new physician that the pain was an immediate indication that I was in trouble.  A conscientious nurse’s persistence won me an overnight stay in the hospital.  She saved my life.  At 4:30 a.m., when I tried to get up to use the hospital bathroom, the artery’s newly minted pseudo-aneurysm ruptured.

I was literally twisted in excruciating pain as ½ my blood drained into my body cavity. I didn’t quite see a white light (everything did begin to break up into blue dots), but the chaos that built up around me at 5 in the morning filled me with a terror that I hope never to experience again.  I began praying and I lived.  I tell you this because as I come to grips with the reality and consequences of this nightmare, I find myself questioning how and why this happened to me and what it means to be given a second chance to live.  What are my new responsibilities? 

In a few hours, we will experience the 3rd and final Presidential Debate.  I’m well aware of all the hoopla surrounding Debate #1, but I’m still unable to shake the off-handed, almost snarky way Gov. Mitt Romney flatlined Big Bird and federal funding for PBS.  It showed a side of Romney that frankly scared me, not only for revealing the man behind the mask, but also for the cavalier way he threw PBS under the bus…negating any and all of his high-minded vague remarks about salvaging our educational system and his concern for the future of young people. 

To put Romney’s proposed cutbacks into perspective, I share with you a rebuttal first published in The Nation and then, as below, in The Bergen (NJ) Record, co-written by public broadcasting pioneer William F. Baker, the distinguished longtime head of the Educational Broadcasting Corp. and former president of PBS-TV’s WNET and WLIW.  I have personally met, interviewed and honored Dr. Baker, our Christopher Leadership Award winner in 2007.  Dr. Baker was only the fourth Leadership Award honoree in the (then 58-year) history of the Christopher Awards.—Judith Trojan

PBS Isn’t the Place to Start Making Budget Cuts

by William F. Baker and Evan Leatherwood

The Nation, October 11, 2012; The Bergen Record, October 16, 2012

When Mitt Romney said he’d reduce the federal budget deficit in the recent debate, PBS was one of only two programs he mentioned cutting by name. Romney has gone after PBS before, touting its elimination as a “major” potential savings for the American people.

There’s an annual $445 million congressional subsidy to public broadcasting that might seem to support Romney’s claim—until you realize that it represents approximately one hundredth of one percent of the entire federal budget.

To put it in perspective: $445 million is only 50 percent more than what the military spends on marching bands. It is less than half of what the U.S. Senate spends each year to administer itself. For the cost of just the AIG portion of the bailout, America could have subsidized PBS at current levels without allocating another cent until the year 2164. The sum of $445 million is a lot to ordinary people, but in the world of deficit reduction, which is what Romney was being asked about, it is an afterthought.

So why does Romney speak as if Big Bird were one of the top two obstacles to national solvency? The reason is simple: He hopes to score a few easy political points.

By eliminating funding to PBS, Romney and the Republicans could indeed win some support from many conservatives, but tens of millions of Americans will lose out, especially poor children struggling to get access to a good education. PBS isn’t just NewsHour and Antiques RoadShow. Ninety-five percent of PBS stations across America provide educational programming to their communities.

The local PBS station in Rochester, N.Y., produces Homework Hotline, which provides direct help to a million struggling students every week. Zeroing out federal PBS money would take Homework Hotline and other locally created educational shows off the air. Denying educational help to millions of kids, many in areas too remote or too poor to have adequate schools, is too great a price to pay for a few election season partisan gains.

Not Important Enough

Romney’s argument is that he is eliminating federal budget expenses that aren’t important enough to justify “borrowing money from China to pay for.” Even by such an alarmist standard, using the already built and paid-for public broadcasting network to help ensure that the next generation will be educated enough to compete with China and other global rivals is an excellent, efficient use of public funds. And if Romney doesn’t agree, the American people overwhelmingly do.

PBS is one of the most widely used and highly valued services the government provides. More than 170 million Americans connect with public broadcasting every single month. For years, the Roper poll has ranked PBS as the most trusted institution in America, more trusted than Congress, the military, and even the criminal justice system. It has been repeatedly ranked second only to military spending as the “best possible use of tax dollars.”

In 2011, the independent polling firm Hart Research/American Viewpoint found that 69 percent of Americans were against cutting federal money for PBS.

And for decades, Americans have been voting for PBS with their wallets, by giving billions of their own dollars in small, individual donations.

PBS may be less important to families like the Romneys, who are wealthy enough to secure their own access to culture and education. But for millions of middle and low-income, often minority families, PBS’s small price tag provides priceless returns. In rural and poor areas, PBS is often the only place where viewers can find arts and culture programming, or see shows that give voice to local or regional issues.

A Bad Deal for Americans

Taking away one of America’s most economically efficient and widely used educational and cultural resources is a bad deal for the American people. And using America’s most trusted institution as a political football at a time when the nation is faced with many actual threats to its economic and social well-being is deeply irresponsible. The choice is not between Big Bird and economic ruin, but between a political conversation that focuses on real issues and one that seeks to divide and mislead.

Dr. William F. Baker currently directs the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham University and is the former president of WNET, New York’s PBS station.

Evan Leatherwood directs communications for the Bernard L. Schwartz Center.

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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