PBS should not be used as political tool

In a Washington Post article following former Gov. Mitt Romney’s controversial Big Bird comment during last week’s presidential debate, right-wing columnist Henry D’Andrea wrote the following in stalwart support of the GOP hopeful: “The First Amendment allows Americans the right to free speech. It does not allow them the right to force others to fund their speech, especially when the debt is well over $16 trillion.”

This, among the slew of consequent media commentary on the need to cut government subsidization to PBS, flung loyal network supporters into furious uproar — with #KillBigBird leading the virtual movement — and for good reason.

For starters, “force others to fund their speech”? Ambushing America’s most accessible avenue for academic cultivation is a scathing blow to a network that has been a torchbearer of democracy in American education and public engagement since the 1970s. Especially when PBS feeds on less than 0.02 percent of the total federal budget — an alarmingly insignificant amount when scaling its tangible social impact with its actual budgetary damage. A leading counterargument is that less than 15 percent of the network budget is subsidized by federal funding. Which means the bulk of PBS always has and will inevitably continue to be supported by private groups, eliminating the need to dip into taxpayer money because the network will supposedly survive regardless.

Perhaps the damage in urban America is relatively corrigible, but the dramatic effect on rural communities without cable, satellite or even Internet accessibility cannot be overlooked. Cutting federal funds has the potential to take out entire local stations, stripping people of the minimal educational outlets they had access to from the outset.

A viral Facebook infographic issued by the network frames PBS’s influence in American viewership. While only three percent of high school students take an astronomy course, “5 million people explore the wonders of the universe each week on ‘Nova,’” PBS said. In the last broadcast year alone, stations “offered more than 500 hours of arts and cultural programming.” And of course, in response to Romney’s attack on Big Bird, a national icon for youth education and interaction, the numbers back up PBS’s claim that they are the “number one source of media content for
pre-school teachers.”

Past the numbers, even a brief scan of PBS program offerings makes the network’s commitment to increased public awareness enormously self-evident. “Frontline,” “Washington Week” and “PBS NewsHour” highlight critical public affairs. “American Experience” and “American Masters” provide essential history lessons. “Nova” and “Nature” are pioneers of educational science television. “POV” and “Independent Lens,” series devoted to independent nonfiction, provide outlets for documentary filmmakers to showcase critical work to audiences beyond the confines of the festival circuit.

PBS is, in all regards, a negligible financial burden for its tremendous allegiance to a more illuminated America. A network dedicated to the advancement of a more educated and informed public should never be the scapegoat of a political agenda, especially one built on gross exaggerations, impractical promises and a shallow understanding of educational democracy.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 9 print edition. Siddhi Sundar is a contributing columnist. Email her at [email protected]