Should The Federal Government Support Public Broadcasting?
As part of a $61 billion package of cuts, House Republicans passed a proposal to eliminate $430 million in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray joins us to talk about why he voted in favor of eliminating funding for the CPB. And, KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo talks about why he thinks federal funds should continue be used to help pay for public broadcasting.
Brian Bilbray, Republican congressman representing California's 50th congressional district
Tom Karlo, KPBS General Manager
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
NELSON: I'm Dean Nelson of Point Loma Nazarene University sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And you're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm the moderator for this segment of These Days, Maureen will return shortly. House Republicans passed a proposal last month to cut $430�million in [CHECK AUDIO] Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray who voted to eliminate funding for public broad cast suggest with us by telephone and in studio is Tom Karlo, general manager from KPBS. Congressman Bilbray, welcome to the show.
BILBRAY: Dean, honored to be with you. Honor to be with you too, Tom.
KARLO: Thank you, congressman.
NELSON: Yes. Tom, it's good to have you in the studio. Congressman Bilbray, I know you're kind of in the middle of element slating the world right here, so let's get right to you. Why did you vote for this proposed bill that includes this $430�million cut in federal funding for the corporation for public broadcasting?
BILBRAY: Well, you know, dean, I've been a supporter of public broad casting for probably well over 20�years.
CAVANAUGH: I know that. That's why I'm surprised to say your name on the A column there.
BILBRAY: We are really faced with a financial decision set none of us want to have to make. And we had the same things -- look, I think everybody agrees that the level of expenditures of the federal government is just not sustainable, and it's not sustainable in any manner. And if we don't make some of these really tough decisions now, the interest on the debt will grow so much that the cuts will have to be tougher and more draconian in the future. And everybody agrees that acting sooner rather than later is essential if we want to reduce the pain of actually having to modify the spending habits of the federal government. And when we confront these challenges, we're looking at things that are, you know, very critical, and things that we really appreciate, but the fact is, it's a priority decision. I mean, I'm looking at a proposal to, you know, cut twice as much out of NIH, the people that actually finance the healthcare breakthroughs that we take for granted. We're looking at cuts twice as much as what we're seeing with the corporation for public broad casting.
NELSON: But does this impact the people in the 50th district that you represent? What's the benefit for your constituents if we eliminate things like the corporation for public broad casting?
BILBRAY: Well, it's not -- first of all, it's not eliminating --
NELSON: It's eliminating the major funding for it.
BILBRAY: It's a portion of their funding. We've seen this over the years as Tom can point out, that we've seen this kind of crisis that we went through when we were trying to address the budget crisis under the Clinton administration. But the fact is -- the key is the fact that we cannot sustain the level of federal funding, and that has a major impact on the economic outlook, major impact on the ability to get investment back out into the private sector where jobs are created, get that kind of economic stimulus that really works, and that is that issue of private investors deciding to trust in the fact that the federal government and the economy's gonna be stable in the future, thus they move forward and start allowing their capital to be invested in new jobs. . And that's a critical component here. We've seen this challenge before, we've seen the way some people have been able to respond to it, and let me just say, you know, the public broad casting is probably one of the biggest success stories of the challenges we hit in the 90s. The fact is that they were able to adapt to the changing environment. And you'll remember, as Tom will point out, this was created back in the days in the 60s when you had a choice of three choices on television. Basically the three networks. That was it. That was total. We ended up creating a fourth choice through federal intervention. Right now, we're taking about a whole different world. And we're talking about a different world for public television because we've seen the massive amounts of innovative approaches, the economic approaches, where you've got major participants in what has been always called public television in the private sector, making lots of money with good investments, good innovative ideas, and actually been able to get a return for the doctor.
NELSON: All right.
BILBRAY: Something that's kept public television alive over the past 20 years.
NELSON: Tom Karlo, general manager of expense, Congressman Bilbray is making the case for cutting public funding.
KARLO: Well, first of all, I agree very much that there is a tremendous deficit problem that is hitting this country. There's no doubt about it, and the work that Congress has to do and Congressman Bilbray is astronomical. But I also. To point out that public broad casting across this country has been a valuable public resource, and it's still the last free broadcast over the air service that is available to most of the country. And even though a lot of people have cable now or satellite, there's still a good portion of this country that does not have that. They get over the air broad casts, especially in the rural parts of this country. And that programming is threatened if in fact these cuts go through. The $430 million that you're talking about, that is just 1 25th of one percent of the $1.5 trillion deficit in deals with discretionary spending of it's a very, very small part, and it's the money we spent that we help to leverage in terms of our communities where our federal support is a baseline of support that allows us to raise -- we raise another 6 to 8 times that across the country. And we are reaching America, we are providing the services that preschoolers who do not have to the ability to go to preschool are educated with the great children's programming. All of this could collapse if the federal support goes away. In San Diego here, KPBS, we would have to make substantial cuts, but there's many stations across the country that depend on 30, 40, 50 percent of their operating budget comes from federal support, and all of that could come crashing down if in fact this goes through. And I think public broad casting is really the solution and it has been a very good part of the government spending over the years. And I think it would have a tremendous affect on all of the people in this country.
NELSON: Congressman Bilbray, we really are talking about a very small amount of money here, aren't we? And why not just leave that in and go after the big stuff? Why not go over the military or Medicare?
BILBRAY: Because if you don't go after everything, you've got to go over, and yes, you could nickel and dime to death. But the fact is, just as much as you said it was a quote unquote small portion, the fact is the federal government's participation in public broad cast has been steadily been reduced over the decades. Basically the perception has always been that this was an investment in the future, you were making an investment, you receive money, you were creating an environment. You have now the public networks have great network of fundraising capabilities, connections, they have lines of credit. The business communities that have never were perceived to exist back in the 60s, and it just shows the innovative way of doing it. We're reaching a point where we basically say that these priorities have to be made. And I would turn right around, and I think Tom would be the first one to say, that when it comes down to the fact in San Diego County, the over the air service especially in the 50th district in San Diego County is not the main -- is not an issue. It's such a thin issue for those of us who are San Diegan, it really comes down to the fact of which people -- who have been depending on federal funding in the past? And the federal largest -- do they have the capability to adapt and modify to be able to survive? And you and I know public television and public broad casting as we know it will survive because there has been such a foundation built over the last 30 years that other agencies -- when you turn around, and Tom would agree, I'm sure, that when you talk about $400 million, if you have to choose between do we do that with maintaining an effort on healthcare research or do we do it with the television deal, he'll say, well, we may not want to make that choice, but we're making that type of tough choices, because these choices have been put off for a while. And I will predict, and I'll say it today, that ten years from now, if these cut backs go through, we will look back and say that it did not have a major impact on the ability to provide the public service --
KARLO: You know, I think that --
NELSON: This is Tom Karlo from KPBS.
KARLO: I think pointing out the 50th district, is you're voting on something that hit the entire country. And there's a lot of people in this country that aren't the same as we are here in San Diego. And that's where the house could be crumbling down. What I mean by that is that all of the programs that we acquire through acquisition through either PBS or NPR on the radio side is stuff that is paid for throughout the country based on a dues formula, if you weakened some of these rural cities throughout the conserve with not being able to pay for these things, it's gonna have a dramatic effect on the national programs, it's gonna have a dramatic effect on our local ability to produce. It is a baseline of support that was established to create public broad casting with a way of leveraging and beginning to grow their operation, and we still need this critical support. We are the ones in this country through public television that are the leaders in science program with Nova, history. We teach these school children all of -- in terms of giving them the rights to have these shows to be used in the classrooms. For example of course great shows like Ken burns and the civil war on World War II, these are programs that are allowing teachers to teach history in a way that they've never taught history before. If this funding is cut, and we see stations around the country go down, and I believe they would go down or have to make astronomical cuts, they will not be able to be a part of the whole pie that supports the national programming that we have. Children's programming would take a big hit. I don't believe the entire country could survive -- public broad casting could survive these kinds of cuts. And I think it is very critical. It is something that is an institution, and I think to have good quality public broad casting that helps to make a rich democracy is very, very important. And I can tell you, a dollar 35 a year is what is averages out to the American public. A dollar 35 a year. When you have the BBC receiving $82 per person in that country, Canada is $32 per other than approximate, Japan is $60 per other than approximate of it is a very, very small amount that allows us to have what I think is the best and most richest public media institution in the kitchen.
NELSON: Congressman Bilbray, I'm sure you're in favor of all of these things, and you don't wanna be the guy who's responsible for taking big bird away from some of the smaller stations. But isn't it the issue with you that government shouldn't be funding this?
BILBRAY: Well, look, it's gotten to the point where we need to make decisions of what are the essential services, and in all fairness, when you've got CEO making a million dollars, and then saying that, my God, this is absolutely an essential service that the people of the United States cannot afford not to have the federal government pay for --
NELSON: So that's the issue isn't it? Isn't that the issue? That you think the private sector ought to be -- if sesame street's important --
BILBRAY: The private sector ought to be stepping up and taking a larger portion of the burden over the last two decades of and that's appropriate. This was never conceived to be a quote unquote entitlement that is always going to be there. It was a great seed. We've expanded. The -- the issue really comes down to the fact that when we're facing a $14 trillion debt, we're facing decisions that are really, really really scary. And I've got -- I spent ten years at the county working with PBS making sure that we cooperated with them on all kinds of stuff, including funding. I've been working here in Washington. The trouble is, the reality has come down. And I just gotta say, there's no way in the world we can sit there and say that this service has to be funded above other services that we're talking about. And a good example, bring it right back, we're looking at twice the cuts at the national institute of health. That is a scary proposition that we're looking at. That's how bad it is. And if we stick our head in the sand and say let's put it off a couple more years, let's put it off a little more, we're reaching a crisis. I think there may be a possibility if we get our financial house in order, that we maybe able to go back to the concept of providing? Grants of but right now, the biggest problem is not that we're cutting too much, and that we're not doing enough and we're gonna have to cut deeper in the future. And you're talking about somebody who's, you know, worked 18 years in local governments, helping them with balanced budgets. And we're tough. When I was mayor, we had to abolish a police department to be able to stay within the budget. That's not something you want to have to do. But they're tough decisions and there's no putting it off if you're responsible. If you're political, you can promise the world, put it off to the next guy. And we've seen what's happened with that across the board. So I really appreciate the service but I think that we've got to say we've got to modify, we've got to adapt, and the reality is the fact that this level of funding at the federal level is not reflected as a priority that is above other priorities that are also taking cuts.
NELSON: All right. So would this be the kind of thing that would be permanent in your view this kind of a cut? Or could we, as you're saying, you're open to revisiting this?
BILBRAY: Oh, absolutely. I'd love to be able to come back and look at it once we get our financial order. I hate to use the analogy, but the fact is, in a family that can't pay its bills finally has to recognize that its capable service has to be cut off. You can't -- and you're talking about somebody who loves PBS, loves the history channel, loves the discovery channel, loves that kind of deal, but if you don't have the money to pay for the essentials, and I guess this is what it really comes down to, is that is this the essential? We're seeing -- and I -- across the board that some people thought was an essentials, but we're really down to that level we've got to make these decisions. I think the way media has been going, public broad casting is essential. We're the last place parents can go to have a safe harbor for their children. We have the best quality around. In a 2000 [CHECK AUDIO] very critical, but do not do it with public broad casting.
BILBRAY: Tom --
KARLO: This was an independent pole that just came out.
BILBRAY: Tom, if you did an independent pole with cuts to network IH, they would say the same thing. This is across the board. But I think you would agree that when any entity that accepts federal funds, bears a level of scrutiny what would not apply to the private sector, wouldn't you?
KARLO: I'm sorry. Repeat that one more time.
BILBRAY: Wouldn't you agree that any entity that accepts federal funds as part of its income stream should expect more scrutiny and should accept more scrutiny than those who do not accept federal funds.
KARLO: We accept the scrutiny that we have had.
BILBRAY: Let me tell you something Tom, as an ally of public television, I sat and watched what happened a few months ago and saw the writing on the wall that the board of directors have just made a huge mistake down the line. Now, it's when thing when CNN wants to fire lieu Robs.
KARLO: Hold on, are you talking about the John Williams --
BILBRAY: The Juan Williams thing is the type of thing that frankly really showed that it would have been one thing if it was a private company making that type of decision, but for somebody spending federal funds to say that what somebody feels is now a termination notice, that really killed us back here and those of us who were fighting to help you guys.
KARLO: You know, the initial public radio issue with Juan Williams, I think there has been statements we both NPR and CPB, that maybe it wasn't handled right. But I don't know all the details with the -- but I can tell you from our standpoint here at KPBS, here locally, and I think what mirror across the country. We want to present impartial opinions of both sides of an issue. We do that in a way that we don't want our reporters here to offer their opinion. That's what creates biassed journalism, in my opinion. I want our reporters to be in a situation where we have a chance to present to people an open discussion, civil discourse, with opposing views that allow people to make their own choices just like this happened here. And frankly, you know, I think we work on both sides of the table. I'm gonna give you an example. 3 or 4 weeks ago, American experience here ran a two part series celebrating the 1 hundredth birth bay of president Ronald Regan.
KARLO: And also over the past week, we had many different segments on our public radio station, about Ronald Rumsfeld's, the Secretary of Defense in both the Ford administration and the bush administration of talking about his book. Deny, I received calls from people who said I was supporting a conservative agenda.
BILBRAY: I don't understand that.
KARLO: It works both ways, and that to me.
BILBRAY: That's not the point, the point was the constitutional right of somebody to express their feelings and then for an agency that is receiving federal funds it really makes it tough for those of us who are trying to protect that agency that that board of directors just basically walked away from that issue without basically saying this is a travesty, it was wrong, it needed to be reversed.
KARLO: If the NPR issue is something you think is very critical in your mind to voting against public broad casting, I'd like to point out that there is a hundred and 70 million Americans who value public broad casting each week in this country. 35 million listen to NPR. That means there's 80 percent or a hundred and 35 other million other people in this country that use the public television services that have nothing to do with that one issue.
BILBRAY: Oh, and I agree. I'm one of them.
KARLO: These are people that value the history shows, the science shows, the classic theatre, the arts and --
BILBRAY: Tom, it consequent change the fact that I publicly -- an agency that's receiving public funds violated the civil rights of somebody, and we all know that hurt our argument as getting into it.
KARLO: But from an editorial agenda, public broad casting is not trying to set an agenda for one side of an issue or the other.
BILBRAY: I'm not saying --
KARLO: What we are trying to do is be impartial, and I can tell you here at KPBS, we don't want our reporters offering their own personal opinion. You want them from --
BILBRAY: You're programs have always been fabulous. I always -- you know how long I've worked with you.
KARLO: Yes, I know.
BILBRAY: You've always been great. But the fact is, at the top level, at the federal level, the first amendment rights were violated by an agency that receives federal fund it is. It makes it tough for those who of us who want to go to the house floor and talk about defending the extend tour of federal funds when it is public record that the board of directors did not step up and stop the violation of somebody's first amendment rights just for saying what he felt. That really hurt those of us who wanted to defend this. This thing has gone far beyond that kind of argument. The fact is, when you've gotten down to it, is that these decisions are being made now based on the financial situation, but it doesn't help us when somebody who's receiving federal funds is not willing to head up and reverse a civil rights violation of somebody's first amendment rights and weren't willing to stand up and be strong about the fact that this is was a mistake, we're gonna reverse it, we're gonna reinstate this person, because the director was wrong on this issue, and we need a -- and I don't care about your issue about who gets an opinion back and forth, he was asked about an opinion.
NELSON: I have a feeling that we would be talking about cutting the funding for corporation for public broad casting regardless of what happened to Juan Williams.
BILBRAY: Oh, I agree with you, it just making it tougher for those of us who were confronting it, and it emboldened those, but now when we've got the budget coming down on us, we've got a situation where we're quieting no -- nobody's talking about cutting from the White House until this issue was brought up. And everybody knows we've gotta do it. They just want to -- the argument is now not if we're going to cut, and this is the biggest thing, Tom, you've gotta remember, no one is talking about not cutting. Everybody is just talking about either do it now or putting it off. That's the point. And everybody that looks at putting it off knows the cuts will be deeper if we put it off.
NELSON: Okay, go ahead, Tom.
KARLO: Well, for me, I would hope that you would have a chance to look at all of the value of the programs and not just look at public broad casting as a dollar amount. And we have done a tremendous job here. And I think just taking one instant -- one instance with Juan Williams and not taking a look at the entire fabric and multiple portfolio of great content that public broad casting and public media offers across would be, to me, a shame that you haven't looked at that thing. And I also want to harp on one other thing, and bring up the fact that in 2007 without a strong KPBS, and a local public media, across television radio and digital media, the community of San Diego would not have received the important and vital information during those tragic fires that hit us in 2007. We were the only broad caster and media outlet that kept the public informed for 6 to 7 days.
NELSON: I need to stop there, thank you Congressman bill bay so much for being with us. I know we extended your time with us.
KARLO: Thank you too, Congressman.
NELSON: And Tom Karlo, thank you too. I'm Dean Nelson from Point Loma Nazarene University, and this is These Days. Maureen will return with the Robert Wilson video portrait exhibit at the Timken museum. Thank you for listening.