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This Valentine’s Day, Show Your Love For Public Media

February 14, 2011

When the new Senate met on January 3rd of this year, Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn introduced two bills intended to eliminate federal funding for public media in the United States.  With fiscal responsibility as the mantra du jour of the Right, Lamborn justifies the bills by claiming that public media is redundant, that it “is now unnecessary in a world of 500-channel cable TV, satellite radio, and cell phone Internet access.”

At first glance, his point sounds reasonable enough—certainly we acknowledge the saturatedness of today’s media—but what’s striking is that in his recent attack on public media, Lamborn seems to utterly neglect the very notion of the public.  In fact, he doesn’t mention the public at all.  His argument has critically important implications not just for the state of public media, but also for the ongoing struggle to retain a sense of the public in our public debate.

When the Public Broadcasting Act formed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, Congress affirmed that public media would be to the benefit of all Americans.  In the portion of the Act that discusses the CPB (the parent organization for PBS and NPR), Congress declared the public media is, logically enough, “in the public interest.”  In one particularly vivid passage, the Act affirms that “It furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute an source of alternative telecommunications services for all citizens of the Nation.” Public media, then, was created with the public interest in mind.

Unlike the Congress of 1967, however, Lamborn suggests no consciousness of the public interest. In an article on his website entitled “NPR: A Good Place to Start Cutting Federal Spending,” Lamborn describes public media in a dramatically different way than its 1960s architects: not as a public service funded by the American people, but a government service subsidized by taxpayers.  “What I oppose,” Lamborn explains, “is subsidizing an organization that no longer provides, if it did, an essential government service.”  Ultimately, this is how Lamborn views public media: as an outdated government service subsidized by taxpayers.  Indeed, despite discussing the CPB, PBS, and NPR—each of whose Ps testify that they serve, and are funded by, the public—Lamborn never once mentions the public.  Lamborn does mention the private, however, in claiming that public media is redundant as it merely provides “services that are widely available in the private market.”

When we look at Lamborn’s article, we can see that while he explicitly argues that public media is redundant, obsolete, and inessential, he implicitly suggests that our very notion of the public realm is outmoded.  Or, perhaps to state the case more accurately, his point regarding redundancy suggests that there’s no real difference between the public and the private.  University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney, whose book Rich Media, Poor Democracy is in part a story of the increasing privatization and consolidation of our mass media in recent years, has observed that the ideology of privatization has had a startling result—not just in media, but in the world at large:  “We are losing our capacity to distinguish public life from the commercial realm, with public life suffering as a consequence.” Lamborn’s article demonstrates this dilemma vividly.  By asserting that the services provided by PBS, NPR, and all public media are “the same” as those that we consume via our “500-channel cable TV, satellite radio, and cell phone Internet access,” Lamborn reveals his own confusion regarding the concept of the public, his own incapacity to distinguish public life from the private interests.

Many of us, however, maintain that there’s a vital difference between the public realm and the private realm—and, what’s more, that the services of public media outlets like NPR and PBS certainly aren’t “the same” as those produced by the private, commercial-driven media.  It’s not that commercial media has nothing to offer us; there’s plenty of information and entertainment to be had from those 500 cable channels that Lamborn cites.  But after acknowledging that the public realm is different from the private realm, we often observe as well that there’s a conflict between the interests of the commercial media industry and the interests and needs of the public.  This was the case in 1967, and it’s still the case today.  If—unlike Lamborn—we still believe that public life in the United States is distinguishable from the private, commercial realm and has genuine value, we ought to join the battle to assert that public media is also both distinct and vital—that media funded by the public, for the public has real value.

If you want to know more:

  • You can read the original text of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, from which I have quoted, here.
  • My analysis of public media is inspired in part by Robert McChesney’s book Rich Media, Poor Democracy—especially his chapter “Public Broadcasting: Past, Present, . . . and Future?”—which I have quoted here.  Get to know Professor McChesney and his many fine books at his website.  In addition, of course, many scholars—from Jürgen Habermas to Michael Warner—have theorized the distinctions between public life and the private realm.  In so doing, they’ve forcefully agreed that there’s a difference.
  • 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting is an organization that is vigorously battling efforts like Lamborn’s to defund public media.  Learn more here.

Kurt Sampsel is a PhD student in Literary & Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

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