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America needs public broadcasting, and arts and humanities agencies

An engaged, informed citizenry assures the continuation of our democracy. So does an understanding of serious music, arts and letters.

Back in 1995 when Newt Gingrich was the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, he strongly urged that the federal government defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Forget about “Sesame Street,” “PBS Kids,” “Masterpiece Theater,” “American Masters,” Ken Burns, “Morning Edition,” “Prairie Home Companion,” and “All Things Considered.” While Gingrich was unsuccessful, his party has persistently revisited the defunding issue, and now it’s on President Donald Trump’s agenda.

Michael Fedo
Michael Fedo

Congress’ budget for the rest of fiscal 2017 (through September) kept arts funding intact. But Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget seeks only $30 million to conduct “an orderly closeout” of federal CPB support. It additionally proposes eliminating allotments to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

A bad idea then — and now

It was a bad idea back in 1995, and remains so. Many conservatives object to financially supporting these agencies with public money, under the assumption that they perpetuate positions deemed inimical to orthodox values.

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But eliminating capital to these bureaus is at best a zero-sum game. For example, Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts says that the arts and culture industry supports 4.8 million jobs, and yields a $26 billion trade surplus for the U. S. — some of it resulting from federally subsidized films and television productions. The annual assessment to sustain the NEA and NEH combined costs each American only 92 cents. And the yearly citizen contribution to the CPB totals just $1.37.

The NEA offers grants to individual artists, writers, and musicians, while the NEH makes institutional awards to museums, colleges, and libraries. These agencies have backed 16 Pulitzer Prize winners, and Ken Burns’ highly honored Civil War series, among others.

Ex-California Republican Rep. David Dreier’s notion that “half the American people have never even heard of, much less listened to NPR (National Public Radio),” and thus we shouldn’t have annual allocations supporting these agencies, makes questionable sense. And it assumes citizens choose not to preserve institutions that contribute to our common culture.

At stake: long-held societal standards

The argument is that since only “elite” and “liberal” intelligentsia support CPB, NEA, and NEH, ordinary citizens should not be forced to pay for services appreciated by a relative few. But what’s at stake here is the sustaining of long-held societal standards — even if only a minority listens, views, absorbs information, or receives grants. Our nation is enriched by citizens concerned about the arts and contemporary issues. That these subjects require thoughtful discourse should not imply lack of access to common citizens.

Unfortunately, profound dissertations, serious music, and artistic expressions don’t play well in today’s marketplace if raw numbers are determining factors. So why shouldn’t the affected divisions compete for wider mass approval?

Because America is facing crises over cultural values and education. And CPB productions, crafted with reasoned dialogues concerning difficult issues such as race, employment, war, hunger, health, literature, and the arts, needs a platform. An engaged, informed citizenry assures the continuation of our democracy. So does an understanding of serious music, arts and letters. The masses aren’t naturally drawn to difficult, challenging topics. Yet many may come to regard them through exposure.

Jefferson’s hope for an educated public

Were we to apply the market standard to public education, does anyone believe that numerous advanced math, science, and foreign language classes would thrive? Most kids would opt out of arduous curricula. But because Americans generally agree that an educated person should be exposed to rigorous academic study, these courses remain. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson believed in an educated “elite” — people broadly informed with general knowledge enabling them to govern and be governed.

The ideal would be that all Americans possess a Jeffersonian, well-rounded education. Instead, we emphasize “training” to equip people with specific job skills. A byproduct of this approach, however, is that they are not exposed to critical analyses. And what we stand to lose are segments of our educational and cultural heritage in the process.

It’s precisely this danger that makes it so essential that CPB, NEA, and NEH not be scrapped. At less than $3 per American per year, this is a small price to pay for their continuation. 

Michael Fedo is the author of nine books, most recently “Zenith City: Stories From Duluth”(Minnesota University Press). His subjects vary widely and include “The Lynchings in Duluth.” He lives in Coon Rapids.


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