McDonnell is attacking public broadcasting (again).

Gov. McDonnell is again proposing cutting all funding for public broadcasting, though this time he wants to eliminate all funding—$2M/year—that the state spends on this public/private partnership. State funding provides about 15% of the budget for most public broadcasters, with that state contribution serving as the kernel from which the stations raise money. Clearly this is not about the money—the return on that investment is enormous, and it’s precisely the sort of government outsourcing that McDonnell adores. No, this is ideological, and his base is going to eat this up. (Some conservatives labor under the impression that NPR has a liberal bias. Anybody who thinks this has either never actually listened to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, or is so far to the right that they don’t know balanced coverage when they see it.) McDonnell’s intentions are made all the more clear by nonsense like this:

McDonnell said in a prepared statement on Wednesday that public broadcasting is a “wonderful resource. … However, in our modern media world there are thousands upon thousands of content providers operating in the free market.”

McDonnell was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1991. He was there for fourteen years, in which time he witnessed the withering of of the capitol press corps. Perhaps he hasn’t visited often since his 2005 election to attorney general, but it’s gotten much worse since then. The place is a ghost town. Everybody is pulling back their coverage…except public broadcasting. They’re actually increasing their coverage of the legislature this year, compensating for the evacuation of the place by commercial media. This contraction is the case throughout the industry, of course—every media outlet is in rough shape, with no sign that things are going to get better. One of the possible outcomes, about which I talked to a bunch of journalists when attending last year’s Society of Professional Journalists’ conference, is that media outlets convert to a non-profit model—actually convert to the public broadcasting model. Point being, McDonnell is either lying or deluding himself if he thinks that the private, free-market approach to media is really working out in the public’s interest on this front.

(On a related note, I’ve been trying to secure a press pass for this year’s General Assembly session, to report on behalf of Richmond Sunlight, but it looks like I’m simply not allowed to. They only give press passes to members of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association or, more specifically, those who qualify to be VCCA members. And their requirements specify that one must be a “full-time, paid correspondent…whose primary responsibility is coverage of the Virginia state government and the Virginia General Assembly…employed by a news organization…whose principal business is the daily dissemination of original news of interest to a broad segment of the public, and which has broadcast or published…continuously for 52 weeks.” What business of theirs it is from where I draw my salary, I cannot imagine. For whatever reason, the General Assembly is going along with this. I’m tempted to make a big fuss about this, but I don’t think I have the time or the energy for that just now. The VCCA has established a club with such high requirements that they’re fast running out of members. Ditto, incidentally, for the Virginia Press Association—I’ve been trying to join that for a couple of years now. They won’t have me, either.)

If McDonnell really wants to get public broadcasting to stand on its own, he should insist that they provide most of their budgets themselves. Say, about 85% of their budget. If it’s so great, they ought to be able to get people to just give them money by, say, running pledge drives or something. Yeah, that’d show ’em.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

17 replies on “McDonnell is attacking public broadcasting (again).”

  1. Those are some striiiiiiict requirements. You should create a stink over some of this. Who sets the rules, exactly?

    Also, I think I’m of the opinion that PBS should not be publicly funded. With the amount of licensed toys/video games/movies, etc. that Sesame Street alone provides, they should be “profitable”. NPR… well, I guess I’m on the fence.

  2. Can we please quit referring to politicians like McDonnell as “Conservative”? He is a Radical Rightwing pol waging culture war, and serving his big money donors. Witness the ABC fiasco.

  3. That second to last paragraph made my blood pressure shoot up. That’s outrageous.

    Last year, we discussed the possibility of smaller news orgs and sites pooling resources in the Valley to help pay a freelance reporter in Richmond to write stories about the Valley delegation and what they’re up to in General Assembly. Now I realize our idea wouldn’t meet those requirements.

    It’s bullshit. They know exactly what they’re doing. They just don’t want Virginians to know what they’re doing.

  4. Michael, for me it’s not a case of whether or not PBS could generate profit on its own by the sale of licensed merchandise and therefore shouldn’t get public funding. For me, public funding is about independence from the need to sell stuff in order to survive. I feel like I’ve seen ample evidence of what kind of journalism/news coverage we get when an outlet has to sell stuff, and not just enough stuff to cover costs but actually to make a profit. We get crap coverage, largely. We get entire staffs of people whose job isn’t providing high-quality, thoughtful coverage, but rather to figure out how to sell more crap (whether ads or direct marketing of licensed goods). We get the crap-selling people overruling the news-covering people on what to cover and how to cover it. By contrast, something like PBS/NPR isn’t hobbled by that need to create a cute fluffy pointless licensed good that can be made cheaply in China in order to pay its bills. I think everyone imagines that public money comes with strings attached that compromise the coverage, but capitalism itself attaches the biggest strings. And when it comes to news, I really don’t think this democracy can afford to give up its one source for news and information that isn’t driven by the profit motive.

  5. I’m just happy he didn’t propose trying to sell it off for a one-time infusion of capital somehow.

    (Incidentally, PBS and NPR don’t own Sesame Street or the Sesame Street brand. The non-profit SesameWorkshop — previously known as the Children’s Television Workshop — does. All revenue from merchandising Elmo and the rest of Sesame Street’s muppets goes directly into SW, as per previous agreements with Jim Henson. Everything the no-profit doesn’t use producing the program is spent on one of their many charitable programs. So, no, you can’t fund NPR/PBS exclusively with Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer.)

  6. @Claire… Won’t argue much about the news aspect, but have you seen Sesame Street recently? It’s a shadow of its former self, not that well-made anymore, and PBS only seems to have like 10 episodes (if that) that they air over and over (and over and over) again. So it’s not as if being non-profit is making the show that high-quality. Maybe if they had to answer to shareholders, they’d air new episodes once in a while. :-)

    /bitter, tired parent

  7. Michael, I haven’t seen Sesame Street lately, and I am curious to hear exactly what constitutes “not that well-made anymore” (in terms of specifics, I mean). However, I have seen The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, WordGirl, Curious George, Dinosaur Train, CyberChase, the new Electric Company, and a few others a LOT in the past few years, and I’m pretty happy with their level of quality, especially when I compare them to, oh, say SpongeBob Squarepants or any of the other crap shows on Nickelodean or the Cartoon Network. Sadly, I think that “answering to shareholders” is EXACTLY why those shows are all crap that I try not to let even my cats watch, let alone my kids. Honestly, I’m puzzled why a bitter, tired parent (one of my own tribe!) would be griping at Sesame Street for arguably having slipped in quality over the years, against the vast panoramic backdrop of all the poisonous, profit-motivated merchandising and marketing that is directed at our kids, which is NOT coming from PBS or NPR.

  8. Well, you’re right. I suppose I’d rather have my kid watch Sesame Street (even if it is the same 5 episodes over and over) rather than some of the other crap out there. I was just being a little tongue in cheek over the repetitiveness of the show. Oh, the episode on Tuesday is the same one they aired on Friday? Time to get bitter and tired. :-)

  9. I just love the term “free” market here, when you have to pay out the wazoo(sp)to get to the “content.” Not everyone can afford cable or satellite, leaving PBS the only true option for educational programming.

  10. All of these points come together to highlight an aspect of this that I hadn’t considered—that public television is, for many parents, a part of our education system. In the same capacity as libraries, more or less. Preschool children across the country grow up watching “Sesame Street,” “Between the Lions,” “Bob the Builder,” “Barney,” “The Electric Company” (yes, it’s back on), etc. All of these are educational shows, and none of them have commercials. (Because, seriously, is there anybody cynical enough to think that three-year-olds should be watching TV commercials?)

    Funding public broadcasting is, in this important regard, part of funding education. Not that this line of thinking is of much use in this regard, given that many conservatives are opposed to funding any form of public education, including schools and libraries.

  11. It’s not just PBS Kids cartoons, which indeed are a quantum leap closer to being educational than cartoons that are not publicly funded. It’s Nova and all the documentaries and the science shows, etc.

    AND it’s the absence of commercials. Our kids pretty much only see commercial television when we watch sports (go Hoos!), and I cringe when the commercials come on. I suppose lots of families have become acclimated to commercials and so the utter insanity of it doesn’t register for them — it must seem normal to watch 8-10 minutes of a show and then have 3-5 minutes of people yelling at you to buy this crap you don’t need! watch this other bad tv show! vote against this scary person who hates America! I tell you, it’s a sad way to run a culture.

  12. Geez, Nova. I haven’t watched it in a very long time, but from what I remember it’s like all the educational stuff on the Discovery Channel with all the reruns of Dirty Jobs filtered out, dehydrated down until it can fit in an hour-long container. I really need to check to see what time it’s on.

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