For the better part of two years, Donald Trump has waged a war of words against serious journalism and freedom of the press in the United States. Now his words have been weaponized. The president’s first federal budget proposal seeks to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting—zeroing out the $445 million annual allocation to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the not-for-profit entity created by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to keep local public radio and television stations on the air.
Trump’s attacks on journalism often target national cable networks, newspapers and other commercial media outlets that chronicle and investigate his abuses of office. One of his favorite arguments is that “much of the media in Washington, DC, along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular, speaks not for the people but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.”
Yet Trump’s assault on CPB funding targets the essential source of revenue for media outlets that are far from Washington and New York and Los Angeles—like KCND-FM Prairie Public Radio, which broadcasts along the North Dakota border with Canada; KRTS-FM Marfa Public Radio, which broadcasts along the Texas border with Mexico; KEMC-FM Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana; and WMPN-FM Mississippi Public Broadcasting on the Gulf Coast.
Fifty years ago, the Public Broadcasting Act established a “universal service” mandate to provide all Americans with free, over-the-air access to public broadcasting’s programming and services. Today, according to the CPB, “more than 95 percent of the US population is able to access public broadcasting’s over-the-air signals. This reach could not have been achieved without a significant federal investment in rural communities throughout the country, as well as the efforts of the thousands of Americans employed by local public television and radio stations in those communities.” Of the 575 public television and public radio stations across the United States that receive CPB grants, 248 of them serve rural regions of the country. For the rural stations, the CPB money is far more vital than for urban stations because, as the CPB notes, “many of these small stations operate in communities with limited financial resources and high poverty and out migration rates.”
Trump is actually attacking the stations that serve many of the parts of the country that supported him last November. And he is attacking what polls have shown to be the most trusted—and cherished—sources of information for rural and urban America. That trust is reflected in popular support for the fund-raising drives of public broadcasting stations; but pledge drives are not enough. Without CPB grants, stations that serve remote regions, regions that are home to historically dispossessed peoples and regions where incomes are low will struggle to stay on the air.
Promising a fierce fight to defend public radio and public television, Free Press president Craig Aaron said Thursday: “This move was expected from a president who believes the media are enemies of the American people. But members of Congress should do themselves a favor by listening to the voices of their constituents instead of cozying up to the administration and its ill-advised plan to silence NPR and PBS. Public and community media are treasured local institutions that are far more popular than Congress or this president—as they will soon be reminded.”
Aaron argues that funding for public broadcasting needs to be increased in an era when Americans are searching for reliable and comprehensive news sources, as well as sources for quality entertainment and children’s programming.
Cuts, he says, are unthinkable—and unpopular.
“If the Trump administration and its allies in Congress think they can push their agenda past the tens of millions of people who rely upon public media every day, they’re in for a surprise,” explains Aaron. “Poll after poll shows that NPR and PBS are the most trusted sources for news and information. Parents believe funding for programs like PBS Kids is an excellent use of their tax dollars. The public will loudly oppose these cuts and all of Trump’s attacks on essential support for local arts and culture.”
Within minutes of the budget announcement, the national Protect My Public Media campaign was up with a petition reminding members of Congress that “The federal investment in public media is relatively small—roughly $1.35 per American taxpayer annually. Cutting funding won’t erase our national debt. But it will devastate our communities. Public media funding enables local stations to provide virtually every household—over 98 percent of the US—with thousands of hours of free, noncommercial programming and services.”
If federal seed money is cut, Protect My Public Media warns, “local stations may be forced to go off-air or to drastically cut the content and services our communities rely on. The lifesaving emergency communications, local programming, proven-effective educational content for children, trusted news, and other services our stations provide could disappear. It could even leave many rural communities without access to any local media at all.”