On February 19, the House passed a bill that would eliminate all federal financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by the year 2013.
However, just a few days earlier, Obama's proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year promised not a decrease, but a $6 million increase to public broadcast funding. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) President and CEO Paula Kerger released a statement saying, “Our country is confronting difficult decisions, so we’re very thankful that the Obama Administration recognizes the critical value of public broadcasting and the public service it provides to American teachers, parents and children." (PBS Statement on the President's FY 2012 Budget)
This is not the first time Congress has butted heads over potentially cutting public broadcasting, but it is perhaps the first time the ensuing debate among the public has occurred in a primary way on the Internet. I wanted to explore the public reaction in more depth (at the risk of blatantly overusing the word "public" within a single blog post.) First, however, I had to clarify some details about exactly what the cut in funding would mean.
Congress allocates money each year to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) . According to CPB's web site, "Funding for CPB helps to support more than 21,000 American jobs, which contribute more than $1 billion to the national economy." In addition, the site assures that CPB's main source of income is membership contributions, and that according to the Public Broadcasting Act, no more than 5% of federal funding can go toward administrative costs. This means that 95% of federal funds allocated to CPB go directly to stations like PBS and NPR.
In 1995, as I recently learned, a similar attempt to eliminate federal financing for public broadcasting was "thwarted by the timely appearance of Sesame Street characters and by panicked supporters who filed petitions and flooded Congressional offices with calls," as reported by the New York Times on February 27, 2011.
This time, however, in the aftermath of the bill there was an overflow of online petitions, rather than phone calls (the same style of petition being widely used to respond to proposed cuts to Americorps and Planned Parenthood). This time, even a visit to the capitol from Arthur (yes, the aardvark) did not prevent the bill from passing in the House. See below for a charming image of the PBS star with co-chairman of the Public Broadcasting Caucus, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.
Source: New York Times (Harry Hamburg/ Associated Press)
Blumenauer argued in his letter to the House that "Public broadcasting is America’s largest classroom and we cannot force our stations to close their doors. Funding for CPB is what makes our local public TV and radio stations thrive. It’s what gives our communities a voice and provides the infrastructure that connects rural to urban." Unfortunately, he did not meet as much bipartisan support as he has in his past defenses of public media, and now the decision will be up to the Senate. So, in the meantime, what role does the public have in influencing what will be done with funding for public broadcasting?
We are being encouraged by groups like 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting (name taken from the number of Americans who use public media each month) to pressure our elected officials to find different areas of the federal budget to cut. They and similar activist groups hope that their online petitions will be supplemented by phone calls by supporters- but at this time in history, will the public express their feelings in venues outside of cyberspace?
From Wisconsin to Washington, DC, and everywhere in between, we have recently seen Americans respond to legislation in some of the most tried-and-true ways we recognize from civil rights protests, but we have also seen an unprecedented use of the online space for reacting via Facebook, Twitter, online petitions, emails to elected officials, and more venues that provide space, if not a location, for conversation with officials.
Even in this modern age, in which we largely accept online conversation as genuine, I have to wonder whether officials have to react in the same way to masses of emails that they must to postal mail, phone calls, and especially gatherings of actual constituents. There is a way in which earlier forms of communication required either the official or someone in their office to actively receive and deal with the public sentiment accordingly. Some feel that Internet activism is the new frontier. Our parents couldn't attend protests while sitting in class, after all, but in a few clicks, we can participate in some form of political movement even without physical presence. Critics call it "slacktivism": if we cared deeply about the issues, we would be out there making sure someone was listening, rather than simply making ourselves feel that we have participated by adding our email to a list, especially when that list may or may not reach, or have great meaning for, the elected officials in whose hands these decisions finally lie. I myself have "signed" countless petitions on Facebook and activist websites (including 170 Million Americans), without ever really being sure what my signature means or where it will go.
In addition, ironically enough, when we have more venues for mass communication than ever before, we are faced with a new problem of disunity: masses of people will not appear to be masses if they are divided in their methods of reacting. When individuals feel similarly, but have different levels of media literacy, how will they connect with one another?
Now I am left wondering: will the people who rely on public broadcasting for news, arts, and culture be able to unite- in an online space or otherwise- to convince their elected officials to restore federal funding for public broadcasting before it is too late?