Will Donald Trump Cut Public Broadcasting Loose, Or Will He Decide He's the Man to Make It Great Again?

A predictable debate meets an unpredictable president.


Sesame Street

The press is aflutter with talk that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be headed for the chopping block. More specifically, The Hill informs us that Trump staffers have been "discussing" the "privatization" of the CPB.

In other words, we don't actually know what's happening. "Discussing" means the administration hasn't settled on a plan; "privatization" could take many forms. Nor do we know how any particular proposal will play out politically. Usually I roll my eyes during these debates, knowing that for all the apocalyptic rhetoric they inspire they have invariably ended with the CPB still in the budget. Occasionally it gets a funding cut, but even those tend to be erased within a few years. But as you may have noticed, our new president is unpredictable. Given all the allegedly impossible things that have happened lately, you can't just assume past will be prologue, even if the forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are still at work.

That said: The forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are quite definitely still at work.

Back in 2011, when congressional Republicans were threatening to cut off NPR's money because it had fired Juan Williams, I offered a brief tour through the history of the We're Going To Defund Public Broadcasting show. The Williams spat, I wrote, was a more exciting hook for the drama

than the one Richard Nixon used in 1971, when presidential pique at the Eastern liberals who dominated PBS spurred him to propose a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped the crowd in charge of the system. On the other hand, it doesn't have the cloak-and-dagger spirit that the State Department flunky Otto Reich brought to the play in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's reelection, when he met with NPR staffers in a smoky little room and warned them that the White House thought they were "Moscow on the Potomac." Nor is it as colorful as the 1993 spectacle starring Bob Dole and David Horowitz, who attacked the radical Pacifica network rather than NPR, providing an opportunity to quote a much weirder series of statements than anything in the Juan Williams kerfuffle. ("We didn't have Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself.")

And the exclusive focus on NPR this time around means the stakes don't feel as high as they did in 1994, when Speaker-elect Gingrich started musing that he might "zero out" the entire public broadcasting budget. A decade later, a House subcommittee heightened the dramatic tension by voting to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) altogether. That element of danger was a suspenseful touch.

While there are Republicans who honestly think the government shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing public broadcasters, there are more Republicans—or, at least, more powerful Republicans—who just think the government should be subsidizing a slightly different group of public broadcasters. As I wrote in 2011, "The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all landed gigs at PBS—and following an initial cut, the CPB's budget crept back upward. The funding fight under George W. Bush took place against the backdrop of a conservative CPB chief crusading for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR." (*) These exercises may not cut public broadcasters loose, but they do whip them into line.

Sesame Street

Needless to say, it would be completely in character for Trump to try a trick like that. (Sample scenario: He ruminates about funding cuts, PBS adds a MAGA voice or two to its lineup, and then the president declares public television a great American institution.) On the other hand, it would also be in character for Trump to endorse a privatization plan as a painless concession to the more free-market wing of the Republican coalition. It's doubtful, after all, that he has strong personal views one way or the other about the issue. Defunding some small programs that conservatives love to grouse about might give him some brownie points when he amps up spending elsewhere.

So: no predictions. At the very least, let's wait to see what the actual proposal says.

Bonus links: To see me arguing, in a point/counterpoint with an NPR vice president, that noncommercial broadcasting would be better off without the interference that these subsidies bring, go here. For a pre-CPB example of the government using its pursestrings to influence public broadcasters, go here. For a paper I wrote many years ago about CPB subsidies undermining independent community radio, go here. For a piece I did on the history of Sesame Street, go here. For some outtakes from that article—including the story of the time one of the show's creators mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground—go here.

(* Interestingly, the CPB chief in question—Ken Tomlinson—later told me that he'd like to "get tax money out of CPB." But he felt that if there was to be public funding, he wanted "balance" in how it was spent. Whatever his personal preferences were, you could make a good case that his push for balance made the GOP less interested in fighting the funding.)