It’s a less than wonderful kind of day for PBS, as President Trump has once again embarked on a quest to gut public-media funding.
First, a caveat: a budget proposal is more of a wish list than a solid resolution. Last year, Trump famously proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—which, in part, funds PBS. But those ideas never actually materialized. In this year’s budget proposal, though, Trump seems to be taking a second stab at killing Big Bird’s erstwhile home by once more suggesting that the government yank funding for the N.E.A. and N.E.H., as well as funding for PBS.
This news is likely not a surprise to anyone at PBS itself, which has weathered its share of fiscal attacks from the right recently—even though its programming serves a nonpartisan function. PBS president and C.E.O. Paula Kerger issued a statement Monday in response to the budget proposal, writing, “Public broadcasting has earned bipartisan Congressional support over the years thanks to the value we provide to taxpayers. PBS, our 350 member stations and our legions of local supporters will continue to remind leaders in Washington of the significant benefits the public receives in return for federal funding, a modest investment of about $1.35 per citizen per year, which include school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, public safety communications and lifelong learning. PBS is focused on providing high-quality content and universal public service to the American people, which is why we enjoy strong support in every region of the country, in both rural and urban areas, and across the political spectrum.”
Patricia Harrison, president and C.E.O. for Corporation for Public Broadcasting, echoed Kerger’s sentiments in her own statement, writing, “Americans place great value on having universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services, provided commercial free and free of charge. Since there is no viable substitute for federal funding that would ensure this valued service continues, the elimination of federal funding to C.P.B. would at first devastate, and then ultimately destroy public media’s ability to provide early childhood content, life-saving emergency alerts, and public affairs programs.”
The G.O.P.’s battle against Big Bird dates back decades; Republicans have been trying, unsuccessfully, to fully defund public-media funding since the 1970s. But younger Americans likely best remember when the yellow fowl became a central talking point during the 2012 election, thanks to a debate in which Mitt Romney vowed to cut funding to public broadcasting—despite insisting, “I like Big Bird!”
Before Romney, there was Ronald Reagan, who once mulled eliminating the N.E.A. And before him, there was Richard Nixon, whose threat to cut C.P.B. funding prompted a stirring (and effective) defense from PBS personality Fred Rogers—known best to most as Mister Rogers—before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, touting the great things that PBS and its contemporaries achieve despite their already meager budgets.
Conservatives have long argued that the free market should fund PBS and the like, not taxpayers. But it’s also worth noting that funding for these entities makes up a measly portion of the national budget—.016 percent, as of last year. Cutting them, then, offers very little practical benefit.
So, why are Trump and the G.O.P. so bent on doing it, anyway? Most likely, it’s because PBS and its ilk are perfect targets for the right. They combine two of the G.O.P.’s favorite punching bags: the media and government spending. Past research has also shown that the American public believes public media hogs a much larger share of the federal budget than it actually receives. For Republicans, antagonizing these entities is a can’t-lose situation: public media is a highly visible, tangible enemy. And even if cuts don’t actually materialize, calling for them is a way to appear like fiscally responsible governors who have been stopped in their tracks by biased liberal media and politicians, bent on spending every last penny on kiddie shows and Masterpiece Theatre.
The good news? These cuts are, once again, very unlikely to materialize once the proposed budget jumps through all the requisite legislative hoops. Republicans have been playing this losing game for several decades; continuing the game at this point just means expelling more rhetorical hot air. If only there were an appropriate meme to express this repeated frustration.
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Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com. She was formerly an editorial assistant at Slate and lives in Brooklyn.