On funding PBS

Periodic dustups over whether the government should continue to provide funding to PBS and NPR are always incredibly frustrating, and not just because public broadcasting provides an important service. People deserve to have access to news and information about events that affect their lives, and in the case of young people, educational programming is particularly important. There’s a reason Sesame Street plays such an iconic role in our lives, as something that both entertains and delights, but also as something that serves as the grounding for early childhood education in the US.

Aside from the intrinsic value of public broadcasting, though, PBS and NPR both provide something else that’s critically important: Investigative journalism. PBS in particular has been on a real roll in the last year with coverage of poverty among children in low-income communities, detailed reporting on the Ebola outbreak, a multi-part series on food contamination, discussions about hospital infection control, coverage of brain injuries in sports, and so much more. Frontline, the organization’s investigative and documentary arm, is, in short, utterly killing it.

NPR, meanwhile, has been heavily involved in investigative reporting as well, often in partnership with other journalism organisations. One of the more recent examples was a fantastic series on rape on college campuses, which NPR covered before it was a popular social issue, underscoring the important of investigative journalism: The reporting opened a lot of eyes and laid the groundwork for a complicated conversation that needed to happen. It also created drivers for policy reforms that benefited rape victims/survivors living on college campuses across the US, even as such policies are still falling woefully short.

Overall, PBS gets less than 20 percent of its funding from the federal government, funneled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The organisation distributes funds to PBS and NPR through direct grants, and it’s also starting to support web-based reporting, thanks to dramatic shifts in the way we report on and conceptualise news. All of the organisations receiving funds through the Corporation have to be public broadcasters operating with a clear public benefit in mind. Overall, the government spends .014 percent of its annual budget on public broadcasting, which is hardly a fortune.

In fact, there’s a strong argument for spending more on public broadcasting. But if we accept the current funding levels as sufficient, the attacks on funding are ludicrous. Cost-conscious legislators who want to find ways to trim government spending could find much more appropriate trees to bark up, given the minuscule amount of funding offered to public broadcasting. If the concern is saving money for the federal government, there are some serious areas of wastage, but funding projects for the common good isn’t one of them. They could start with their own bloated salaries and benefits as well as the numerous pork barrel projects they sneak into legislation in the hopes that no one notices or cares.

But public broadcasting serves an important function beyond the distribution of news. Funding investigative journalism on a national level creates accountability for a nation that needs accountability, and ensuring that the results of these investigations are readily available generates a national conversation about issues that might otherwise be swept under the rug. Especially when numerous traditional media outlets are starting to abandon wide-scale, in-depth investigative journalism, the preservation of such research through public funding is absolutely critical.

People in the United States, and the world, need to know about issues that affect the United States. They need to be aware of social trends and concerns as well as ongoing problems that could have an immediate influence on their own lives; for example, knowing about treatment-resistant MRSA and other infections allows people to make informed choices about medical treatment. Knowing that poverty among children is a serious issue lets people vote for candidates who are focused on fighting poverty. Being aware of widespread contamination problems in the food supply helps people decide which foods they want to buy and where they want to buy them.

Many of these issues are things that wouldn’t be exposed to the public without the benefit of investigative journalism to force them into the glaring spotlight of the outside world. Some are also things that their subjects would prefer to keep under wraps; PBS’ coverage of rape in the fields and abuse of agricultural workers, for example, tears at the very fabric of social attitudes about our agricultural system. It also challenges traditional notions about the people who pick, handle, and process our food. Notably, many of the organisations fingered as culprits in the supply chain problems that allow for rape, coercion, and intimidation in the fields declined to be interviewed, and fervently avoided public attention.

For special interests that would prefer to keep their sins out of the public eye, NPR and PBS are threats. It’s perhaps not surprising to see some lawmakers pushing for cuts to their funding or outright elimination of government support, as many work under pressure from the same interests; those representing districts with a heavy agricultural presence, however, have strong incentives to suppress investigative reporting on problems in the farming industry. But that’s exactly why we need to preserve funding for public broadcasting, because you shouldn’t get a free pass just because your wealthy and just because you have social influence.

Journalism in general is undergoing radical shifts at the moment, some of which are related very directly to funding shortages that make it hard to pay for the level of research and staffing necessary to lead investigative projects. Reporting like the New York Times’ detailed discussion on abuse in nail salons earlier this year is expensive. Many papers can’t afford to do it, or don’t want to — though my hope is that the success of the Times report changes that. Meanwhile, public broadcasting fills an important gaping hole, and one that can’t be left unaddressed, because the people deserve to know.

Image: beaker, Larry Sheradon, Flickr