How Big Bird ate your financial aid

    If your federal financial aid lags even further behind your newly increased college fees next year, some of the blame can be laid at the feet of Elmo, Charlie Rose and the rest of the public broadcasting crew.

    It all happened this summer, when a House of Representatives committee proposed cutting by $100 million the amount of money the government gives to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the company that passes the bucks to your favorite National Public Radio and PBS stations. In response, the stations aired commercials warning of the impending doomsday, urging their viewers and listeners to contact members of Congress in protest.

    Loyal public broadcasting aficionados did, flocking to Washington, D.C., in scores, and pressuring the House to restore the cuts. Newspaper headlines everywhere trumpeted their success. But few seemed to realize that public broadcasting’s win was also a loss for some of the most vulnerable members of society: The people who depend on the government for essential services.

    Under its own rules, the House could not actually raise its overall spending; instead, any money restored to CPB had to be cut from other labor, education and health programs. Higher education, alone, took a $27 million hit that included financial aid and loan programs, on top of other reductions already under consideration.

    And public broadcasting is probably one government program that doesn’t need a federal subsidy, no matter how fervently its users protest; nearly a third of NPR listeners make more than $100,000 a year and its average listener rakes in more than $84,000, a higher income than three-fourths of all Americans. The foaming-mouth critics of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which disproportionately favored the wealthy, should have been equally rabid this summer. Except they weren’t.

    Spending on NPR and PBS is pork, pure and simple: The benefits of the programs are very concentrated (the number of people who watch PBS’ award-winning news show “Frontline” lags even its least popular network television cousin) while the costs are diffused across all of society, by way of taxes.

    No one argues that the CPB-funded shows fail to provide social benefit. But the question that needs to be asked is whether those benefits outweigh the costs of stripping the poor of health insurance, of restricting college access to only those who can pay and of cutting job-training programs for the unemployed. This summer, we faced a zero-sum game, and we answered the question incorrectly.

    Those who argue that public broadcasting is an oasis of purity and innocence in a media world controlled by advertising dollars and major corporations are in serious denial. Both NPR and PBS already rely on advertising, including ads from tobacco manufacturers and other socially irresponsible multinationals — they just call it “underwriting messages.” If these ads have not already deleteriously injured the quality of programming, there is little reason to believe that more ads — the likely consequences of reduced subsidies — would make public broadcasting a corporate flunky.

    What public broadcasting provides is a unique, niche product, and that product would be provided even if the government stopped subsidizing it, because the demand would still be there. Two of the most popular current shows on public radio, “Marketplace” and “This American Life,” are already distributed by Public Radio International, not NPR. Unlike NPR, PRI is a private company, and it syndicates its shows not only to public radio stations but also other content providers, like Sirius Satellite Radio, which are unaffected by government funding. Even if CPB was to go bust, its rich viewers and listeners could still spring for the satellite programming.

    In a perfect world, our society would be rational and we would not spend one out of every $20 our economy produces on the military. That way, we could fund social services and public broadcasting, and still have money left over to pay down the national debt. Alas, democracy works in strange ways, especially when it is driven by emotion and the stupid get a vote.

    Faced with America’s continuing problem of having really, really fat kids, “Sesame Street” changed one of its signature tunes earlier this year. Instead of his classic “C is for Cookie,” the Cookie Monster now serenades viewers with “A Cookie is a Sometimes Food.” Maybe funding for public broadcasting should be too.

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