NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
As Congress and the White House wrangle over the federal budget, Republicans in the House of Representatives want to include the Public Broadcasting Corporation among the cuts. CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is slotted to get $430 million this year. Seventy-five percent of that goes to public television, 25 percent to public radio.
Most of the money goes directly to 1,300 TV and radio stations around the country, but CPB also provides funds to specific programs, including "NOVA," "The PBS News Hour," "Sesame Street," "StoryCorps" and "Snap Judgment."
As much as 10 percent of NPR's budget comes from federal funds, either through competitive grants, or indirectly from member stations that pay fees to carry NPR programs like this one.
This is the not the first time public broadcasting has been the focus of spending cut debates, but in the face of record deficit and pledges from both sides of the aisle to put everything on the table, the likelihood of cuts seems greater than ever.
We want to hear whether you think federal funds, your tax dollars, should be used to support public broadcasting. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the second in our series on this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries "Inside Job." But first, we begin from Capitol Hill with Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican who represents Colorado's Fifth District. Nice to have you with us today.
Representative DOUG LAMBORN (Republican, Colorado): Hey, good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: And should the government fund public broadcasting?
Rep. LAMBORN: No, it should not. And you know, everyone in the abstract says that we have to reduce the deficit, hopefully eliminate it entirely, but when we get to the reality of actual programs being reduced, then, you know, people start to get uncomfortable.
Everyone is going to have some things in this proposed budget, with $100 billion this year, maybe more, hopefully more next year, where they're going to, you know, not be happy. But we have to share in this as Americans to get our fiscal house in order.
CONAN: Four hundred thirty million dollars out of a, well, $2.7 trillion budget doesn't seem like a lot.
Rep. LAMBORN: You know, Neal, if we took that approach with every single budget and said, well, it's not enough to make the difference by itself, we would never reduce any program, and we would never start anywhere. So we can't use that form of reasoning or we'll never get started.
CONAN: Zero seems like a lot too. Fifty percent, couldn't you compromise somewhere?
Rep. LAMBORN: Well, that's the beauty of having two chambers in Congress. I'm sure the Senate is going to weigh in. They may say let's have 100 percent, or more. They may say 50 percent. So this still has a ways to go in the process.
CONAN: So no matter what the vote is, and I understand the vote is scheduled for later today?
Rep. LAMBORN: Yes, sir.
CONAN: So no matter what the vote in the House of Representatives is, this is not over yet.
Rep. LAMBORN: No. It'll have to be negotiated with the Senate when they perform their work, and then, of course, the White House has a chance to weigh in at that point.
CONAN: Even if there is a compromise, reduction in funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting means less funds to those 1,300 radio and television stations. That would disproportionately affect the smallest stations, those in rural areas: Alaska, Montana, the Dakotas, places like that.
Rep. LAMBORN: Well, Neal, I really think that - you know, I'm a fan of public broadcasting. There are a number of programs that have a lot of quality and I enjoy. So I really do think it would be an adjustment, obviously, but I do think that the future is bright for public broadcasting should it become private broadcasting, and that because of the quality that is contained in the various kinds of programming, there will be a way forward.
It'll mean scrambling and finding new sources of revenue, whether it's advertising or whatever, fundraising and so on, but I really do think there is a bright future for public broadcasting should it not receive its government subsidy.
CONAN: Should not the government, though, have a role in support of education and the arts, programming that is not sustainable in the private sector?
Rep. LAMBORN: Okay, you raise a good point. If it's not sustainable in the private sector, then should it be there in the first place? If the private market cannot support something, should taxpayers have to pick up the bill? I think that's a serious question that we're grappling with right now.
And when you combine that, Neal, with the fact that we have a $1.6 trillion deficit, just this year alone that we're in the middle of, we can't. We don't have that luxury anymore.
CONAN: I wonder: Public broadcasting, you want to put that on the table. What in your district in Colorado are you putting on the table that would be a sacrifice from your side?
Rep. LAMBORN: It looks like we're going to have some defense cuts. I'm not excited about that, Neal. I'm not happy about that because, you know, they're out there defending our country. But it looks like we're going to have about $16 billion in defense cuts out of this year's defense budget, which we're in the middle of.
And you know, I'm not happy about that. But it is part of the total picture, as it's shaping up, of what we have to do to save our country.
CONAN: You talk about shared sacrifice. Is it fair to say that, at least on the Republican side, that some of this is a matter of ideology, that some members, conservative members of Congress, feel supporting public broadcasting is funding the enemy?
Rep. LAMBORN: Oh, I don't know what's going on in everyone's mind. That's certainly not what's going on in my mind. I had introduced a bill last June to eliminate the funding for Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and that was before this whole incident with Juan Williams even took place.
CONAN: Our former colleague here at NPR, who was suddenly fired, and it sparked controversy.
Rep. LAMBORN: Yeah, and that put on the radar screen the questions of ideological content or directives going on there at NPR. But my bill was in existence even before any of that took place.
CONAN: With respect, arguments about the political bias and ideology predate the Juan Williams affair by some decades.
Rep. LAMBORN: That could be. I've only been in Congress four years myself.
CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. We're talking with Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado, who opposes funds for public broadcasting, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Rodney's(ph) with us from Oswego in New York.
RODNEY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.
RODNEY: Yeah, I just wanted to say that, you know, I hear President Obama talking about education all the time, and that's one of his big goals, and you know, NPR is a great source of education, and he'd be taking information away from Americans when he should be focused on giving more information out.
You know, college and high schools and all kinds of other schools aren't the only source of educating Americans.
CONAN: Rodney, as far as I know, the president is in favor of support for public broadcasting and television. But Congress Lamborn, it's not just NPR. To be fair, a lot of people would say: What about "Sesame Street"? What about children's programming that's vital to their education?
Rep. LAMBORN: Well, no one's talking about eliminating Corporation for Public Broadcasting or NPR. We're just saying let's not have the taxpayer subsidy.
They are very welcome, and I wish them the best of success going forward. So no one's talking about eliminating the role. It's just that the taxpayers can't keep paying for everything.
We have a $1.6 trillion deficit right now. We have a $14 trillion national debt. And these are unsustainable levels. This cannot continue.
CONAN: Let's go next to Whitney(ph), Whitney with us from Philadelphia.
WHITNEY (Caller): Hello, thank you for taking my call. I absolutely love this program so much, Neal. I think you're awesome. What I'm thinking is, after listening to the Political Junkie, it really did depress me yesterday. Ken said in the end he was depressed, and I thought, oh, I was too. And I put it on my Facebook.
But anyway, I'm unfortunately thinking that maybe this is the - it is something that has to be cut. However, I would never object to advertising on public radio or public TV because I love the program so much. And if it would mean that they needed funding through advertising, then by all means do it, if it the government's going to cut the funding.
CONAN: And so if other things are going to be cut, Whitney, you say, sadly, maybe this too?
WHITNEY: Sadly, yes. It devastates me, but I would also give more, which I know that doesn't sound exactly right. I should give just to give. But I think I would give more to public television and radio if I knew the government was cutting it.
And it's sad. It's so sad because my children, every day when I pick them up from school, love to listen to Terry Gross. I mean, they would listen to you, Neal, if they were out of school at that time.
CONAN: That's all right. My children always said: Do we have to listen to that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
WHITNEY: They actually like it, and it gives us such great conversation in the car. But like I said, if public radio or television had to go the advertising way, I would absolutely still listen and still watch.
CONAN: Whitney, thanks very much for the kind words, and we appreciate the phone call.
WHITNEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Congressman Lamborn, you can count votes as well as anybody else, I suspect. What do you think is going to happen tonight?
Rep. LAMBORN: Well, last night at midnight we beat back the main challenge. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon had an amendment to eliminate the reduction of funding, the elimination of funding, and that amendment was not in order and was defeated.
So I was there with him. You know, we had a back-and-forth at midnight, and that was the main challenge. So at least in the House it looks like this is going forward.
CONAN: Congressman Lamborn, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Rep. LAMBORN: Good to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: Doug Lamborn represents Colorado's Fifth District. By the way, Earl Blumenauer, who we just mentioned, will be on with us in a few minutes. But in the meantime, with us here in Studio 3A is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Tom, always nice to have you on the program.
Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Pew Research Center): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And as we think about public broadcasting, what role has it really carved out as media changes so much over the past few years?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, commercial news radio on the other parts of the radio dial have largely disappeared, not vanished completely. But there are only 31 all-news commercial radio stations left in the United States.
There are about 1,600 stations that list themselves as doing news talk and information, but from our content analysis that we've done periodically of those talk stations, those are almost exclusively talk, with nationally syndicated headline at the top of the hour. There's really not much street reporting, either nationally or locally on commercial radio anymore.
CONAN: International reporting?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: International reporting. Thirty percent of the content that we studied on NPR last year had to do - was about foreign affairs. Four percent of the reporting on the rest of radio was about foreign affairs. So it's a significant difference.
CONAN: More with Tom Rosenstiel when we come back. We'll also talk with an advocate for continued funding by the federal government of public broadcasting. More of your calls as well - 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
The budget debates are underway, and many Republicans want to eliminate funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB provides significant support for public television and radio stations across the country, and for PBS and to a lesser extent NPR.
We want to hear from you. Should federal funds go to support public broadcasting? With us in the studio is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project on Excellence in Journalism. A moment ago, we heard from Republican Representative Doug Lamborn, who supports the cuts. Now we'll go to Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who represents the Third District in Oregon and joins us by phone from Capitol Hill. Nice to have you with us today.
Representative EARL BLUMENAUER (Democrat, Oregon): Likewise, Neal.
CONAN: And Congressman Lamborn told us he was with you last night when your amendment went down. Do you expect the vote tonight to go the same way?
Rep. BLUMENAUER: Well, it's wrapped up into the larger continuing resolution. They wouldn't allow my amendment to come to a vote. They disallowed it on a technicality, even though my new friends in the Republican majority have routinely waved points of order for their things.
We had set up an opportunity to recapture a tiny bit of the support through the tax structure to the five largest oil companies that's not needed anymore to fully fund public broadcasting, and it would've added more money to reduce the deficit.
This is not about reducing the deficit. This is very much an assault on the public broadcasting - how can I say this - sort of the backbone of what we have for public broadcasting, and it definitely has ideological overtones. We've seen this movie before.
CONAN: And I'll get back to that in just a second. I should point out the way the rule is structured, to propose to restore money for one thing, you have to propose to cut something else, which is why you...
Rep. BLUMENAUER: In a very narrow area, in a Congress into a in a CR that is already dramatically reduced, which is not going to be sustained over time.
CONAN: CR, continuing resolution. We'll get through all the blizzard of acronyms in a bit.
Rep. BLUMENAUER: I'm sorry.
CONAN: That's all right. Ideology, why and how is it playing a role?
Rep. BLUMENAUER: Well, this has been something that has come up again and again in 1995. It came up in 2002, 2005. It has been long an agenda of my Republican friends.
What's different is up till now we've always had a core of Republican supporters who said this is crazy. You take away the support from the federal government of public broadcasting, it's going to make it almost impossible to reach hard-to-serve areas of the country, rural and small-town America.
My friend Doug was talking about, well, you know, just sell advertising. Well, there's a reason that there isn't a commercial entity that provides local programming the way that NPR does, for example, in the Intermountain West, where Doug is from. It's not commercially viable, and to extend the service - for example, Oregon Public Broadcasting, where you are heard in my hometown, also serves the remote areas of Eastern Oregon. It costs 11 times as much to serve Burns, Oregon as it does the Portland metropolitan area, and there simply won't be enough money to be able to have that extensive expensive service.
CONAN: Here's an email we have Jeb Collier(ph) in Connecticut: Our local public radio station has missed its fundraising targets three times over the past 18 months or so. If local listeners won't support public radio, why should taxpayers support it nationwide? NPR may not be the national treasure some people think it is.
Rep. BLUMENAUER: Well, I mean, bear in mind that the amount that comes from the federal government is a relatively small amount, and it is heavily leveraged - five, six, seven times as much, and there is certain content that simply isn't going to be available.
All this educational content that we revere, and even some of my Republican friends say they think is great, they're glad their children had it, well, in the commercial market you go look at those 500 cable or satellite stations, they're not producing commercial-free entertainment. The stuff for kids is targeted to sell things to kids, not to educate them, and it simply isn't going to happen if it's going to be thrown to the tender mercies of the free market.
Your - what Tom mentioned a moment ago in terms of foreign affairs, that is shrinking in terms of there's no good commercial market for it, and thankfully public broadcasting has stepped up to fill the void from a variety of sources, and it's expanding its coverage at just the time we need it.
CONAN: And I have to ask, though, in a budget where the president of your party suggests cuts for heating oil subsidies for poor people, shouldn't public broadcasting be on the table too?
Rep. BLUMENAUER: Well, it is on the table, and there will be a back-and-forth, and there are already some critical programs that I care deeply about, like Ready to Read, that is on the axe, that is subject to the axe. But for one - less than a half a cent a day, this is essential infrastructure for the country.
I'm prepared to argue at great length that we need public broadcasting more than ever if we're going to have the national public discussion about priorities, to educate people, to engage them. This will make it easier to make those hard decisions because the real money is going to be reforming Medicare spending and the Defense Department; $16 billion is not a nick in an area that has been growing dramatically and even my conservative friends say has a huge amount of waste and inefficiency.
That's where the real money is, and tying up an argument over less than half a cent a day for public broadcasting, which is a tool to help us move forward, I think is a terrible mistake.
CONAN: Congressman Blumenauer, we thank you for your time. And I would be less than honest if I didn't say good luck.
Rep. BLUMENAUER: Thank you so much, Neal. I appreciate your work.
CONAN: Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, with us from his office on Capitol Hill. Tom Rosenstiel still with us. You were talking about some of the radio content. What about the public television content?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Public television content also differs, although you don't have the diminution of news on television that you have on radio. You have, in fact, an expansion of stations that are offering news content. Local stations offer more hours of news content than ever before because it's a way of compensating for declining ratings in one time. Local news now starts at 4:30 in the morning in many...
CONAN: In a lot of places, yeah.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: You have cable news. But there are striking differences. There is more foreign coverage on NP on...
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: ...on PBS, about 30 percent, as in NPR. About 30 percent of the coverage on "The News Hour" was about foreign affairs. It's 19 percent on the rest of network news, and on cable it's quite a bit smaller.
Cable news on television tends to take one or two stories a week, the biggest stories of the week, and double them. So whatever the biggest story of the week is gets talked about even more, and we see this week in and week out.
So you have a very narrow range of subjects on cable television, and on commercial television...
CONAN: And sometimes that's Egypt, and sometimes that's Lindsay Lohan.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: And it's typically, on cable, something that has an ideological edge. Wedge issues get more coverage. Lindsay Lohan actually gets very little coverage on cable news because there's no partisan divide there. We all are brooding(ph) and sad about Lindsay's situation.
But on commercial television, what you see is the audience for the three commercial networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, is half what it was 20 years ago. The news-gathering muscle there is also half what it was 20 years ago. And the audience has just shrunk.
There are actually - more people listen to NPR now than listen - watch all three commercial network news programs in the evening.
CONAN: Here's an email from Jerome(ph) in Marysville, Ohio: One of my concerns in this debate is that CPB is a distraction. If you begin with trimming such a minor part of the budget, it's a feel-good moment, you feel like you've achieved something, but you really haven't.
If Congress made major cuts and then said, well, unfortunately we need to cut CPB to meet our goals, I'd believe the effort was genuine. But to begin with CPB and say, well, we have to begin somewhere, I find that disingenuous. Start with the big rocks, then go for the little rocks.
This from Bud Mead(ph): Your guest got it right. We all want the cuts but won't make the sacrifice when it comes to our pet projects. I love NPR, but we all have to give up something to balance the budget.
And Tom, let's say, well, given for a moment that the Republican votes are there and that the votes to zero it out go ahead, what would happen if - all right, let's make a compromise with the Senate, and it's 50 percent, if 50 percent of the CPB funding is cut for this year, starting March 4th?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, it would probably hurt NPR less than it would hurt local communities, because NPR has the wherewithal. A smaller percentage of its, of your budget comes from federal funding than is true of stations around the country.
You probably have stations and particularly in more rural and smaller markets, that would cease to exist. But NPR, which is probably the political target here more than a local station in Oklahoma, is going to survive.
So there'll be a lot of - if this a political fight, there'll be a lot of - if this is a political fight, there will be a lot of collateral damage at the local level.
And in conservative communities, the National Public Radio stations - as true of all media - tend to reflect very much the mores of whatever community it's in. So I think that there'll be people who - doing this on a national level, are going to find that there are repercussions locally that they might not fully expect.
CONAN: Public television said to be at its most tenuous moment in many years.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. And it's interesting. Public television and the news hour has done fine, but public radio has thrived in the last 10 years. As most media outlets have seen their audiences shrink, NPR has seen its audience more than double. Twenty-seven million people listen to NPR every week. That's - well, you've got about 20 million that watch the network evening news. You've got more people watching - listening to you now than probably any single news entity in the United States.
CONAN: I have to put a tie on, then. Let's see if we can get to another phone call. Let's go next to - this is Donald, Donald with us from Salem in New Hampshire.
DONALD (Caller): Yes, yes. I'm here in New Hampshire, and our Republican House voted to sever the relationship between the University of New Hampshire and our public TV station, Channel 11, which effectively eliminates all support for the public TV station. They're probably going to stop all local programming, including their state news.
CONAN: And what's the timeframe on that? Do you know, Donald?
DONALD: As soon as the state budget passes.
CONAN: As soon as the state budget passes - so, this year's budget?
DONALD: Yup. The one they're working on now. So it won't be this year, but it will be the next budget. They're going to zero the funding for the public TV station in New Hampshire and the planetarium and, you know, just a whole laundry list of educational things they've deleted funding for.
CONAN: Donald, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
And, Tom Rosenstiel, that's significant. I was down in Norfolk, Virginia earlier this week, and they were talking about the Virginia State House also talking about cutting funds for public broadcasting. It's not just Virginia and New Hampshire, either.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. And, I mean, lots of things are getting cut on the state level - cops, firefighters and all kinds of other things. You know, gradually, public broadcasting has moved further away from a dependence on federal funds. And I assume that if state House funding begins to dry up, you'll see a transition.
By and large, public broadcasting has done two things that are different than commercial broadcasting in the last 20 years. One is that because you're not tied to commercial audiences, you operated more on a kind of long-term strategy. You haven't moved in the same way that commercial broadcasting has.
In the 1990s, for instance, as they began to see audience shrink in commercial television, they - the programming became more tabloid. Crime was the number one subject on network evening news in the '90s, even though crime was going down, because you had some big celebrity crimes. None of that did anything to staunch the loss of audience.
Public broadcasting has seen its audience grow because it stuck with things that they thought were significant, but might not sell in the short run. In the long run, they've actually sold. The news hour has seen, on television, its audience hold up much better than commercial television has. And radio, NPR has seen this enormous audience growth because it's covering things that people can no longer find anywhere else.
CONAN: Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And here's a tweet from youngshay112: If they defund it, we'll just have to step up. Nothing is promised, and we can't let ad-funded media be the only media we have.
This from John Lampey(ph): I'm a social liberal and a financial conservative. I do not have a TV signal - thanks, Congress, digital TV. I listen to NPR virtually all day. That said, I'd significantly reduce funding. There are too many outlets, I can select among five. That means five management teams. Why? If it were up to me, I'd cut every federal program 10 percent, permanent hiring freeze, reduce pay and benefits to commercial comparables, so few would lose their jobs just to pay cut. Pleasant? No, but better than rifts(ph).
So this is a complaint we hear about both public television and public radio, that there are lots of duplications. I don't know where John was writing from, but there are places where you can get several public radio stations and, indeed, several public television stations in the same market.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. And what we've seen is, actually, for earlier this decade, NPR did very well with all news. And some public radio stations that did classical music and news shifted over to all news because they thought they'd have a better audience result.
So you've had, actually - because of the success of NPR - a push against some other things that public radio was offering, like classical music, country and Western or bluegrass music in some markets. And we did have some duplication of news.
In Washington, D.C., we saw the classical music station move to all news and then move back to classical music because there wasn't really a need for two all-news public radio stations.
CONAN: Let's go to Mark, and Mark with us from Saint Louis.
MARK (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead. You're on the air.
MARK: Yeah. I think that we need to really think about priorities. I mean, we've got a $14 trillion national debt and budget deficits for the next 10 years, according to President Obama's budget plan. We've got to fund the things that are important to us. And, you know, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the kinds of things that are taking care of people, those are the important things right now.
We can't get - if we're going to argue about cutting money somewhere, we've got to cut the things that aren't the priorities. And I just don't see public radio as a priority, even though I listen to it every day. I try to be involved, and I think it's an important service that the government provides. It's just not a priority right now.
CONAN: Some people would say providing information for an informed electorate is critical to American democracy, Mark.
MARK: No. I agree with that, which is why I believe strongly that the government should be involved with providing public broadcasting when they can afford it.
CONAN: When they can afford it. But that's not right now.
MARK: Yeah. Yeah.
CONAN: That's not right now. Mark, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
CONAN: And, Tom Rosenstiel, thank you for your time today, and we'll have you back, I think, next month. It's the State of the Media report.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Mid-March.
CONAN: Mid-March. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.
Coming up, our series on Oscar-nominated documentaries continues with Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job," a look at the Wall Street bubble and how it burst in 2008. If you're an economist or if you work in the financial sector, if you've seen the movie, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Zap us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.