The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was formed with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. As stated by President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the bill into law, while the CPB will receive support from the government, it will be "carefully guarded from government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all our people."
Those words now betray a naïveté so uncharacteristic of our politically astute 36th president. For the power to appropriate necessarily means the power to control, as revealed by recent partisan attempts to impose limitations on funding from the CPB. Fortunately, for the time being, cooler heads appear to have prevailed, and the current congressional budget compromise does not include restrictions adopted by the House on March 17 that would prohibit CPB grants from being used to purchase programming from NPR, American Public Media and Public Radio International.
Those cooler heads listened to the constituency that supports public broadcasting and wisely concluded that the sensationalist theater over a poorly handled personnel decision and the fury over remarks captured by an agent provocateur's hidden camera were not worth derailing over 44 years of a well-reasoned, well-constructed and successful government subsidy. Congressional leadership is to be commended for retaining this appropriation.
Built into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, indeed the very foundation of public broadcasting, are provisions designed to ensure that stations receiving grants from the CPB operate responsibly and in harmony with the act's purposes and the interest of all Americans, without regard to party politics. These safeguards include:
•Nongovernmental public broadcasters are required to open their board meetings to the public, with allowances for closed meetings to discuss narrowly defined confidential matters.
•Nongovernmental public broadcasters are required to establish a community advisory board that is representative of the diverse needs of the communities served and tasked to review programming goals and community service, and to advise on whether the station meets its community's specialized educational and cultural needs.
•Grants are only permitted to be made to "public" television stations and "public" radio stations. By definition, these are noncommercial enterprises owned and operated by a governmental agency or nonprofit private corporation, whose operating budgets are largely dependent on contributions from their audience. The controlling body is either an arm of government or a board of trustees of individuals who volunteer their service on an uncompensated basis.
While the critics of NPR were harping about its so-called liberal bias, few were willing to acknowledge that the loyal listeners of NPR describe themselves as one-third liberal, one-third conservative and one-third none of the above. There are few institutions in this country that can boast support across so wide a spectrum.
President Johnson cautioned that if control of the CPB were to fall into weak or irresponsible hands, it could generate controversy without understanding; mislead as well as teach; and appeal to passions rather than to reason. Those words presaged the actions of those members of Congress who recently sought funding restrictions. We, the governed, must continue to remind our leadership of its obligation to serve all.
The writer is chairman of the board of WYPR, Baltimore's NPR news station. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org