The year was 1977. Big Bird locked himself in his room. A yellow and red sign warned all to “Keep Out!” Finally, after much pleading he let Buffy Sainte-Marie through the door.
“Well, if it isn’t my former best friend,” Big Bird says to Sainte-Marie. Turns out he’s jealous over her son, Cody, Big Bird wants attention. (Of course that episode was easily solved with a song, “Different People, Different Ways.”)
Republican challenger Mitt Romney gave Big Bird plenty of attention Wednesday night, saying it was time to end the federal subsidy for public broadcasting. “I like PBS, I love Big Bird,” Romney said. “But I’m not going to – I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That’s number one.”
Big Bird? Really? Turns out Big Bird receives little in the way of public funding. Sesame Street has long supported itself by fundraising and commercial activities such as licensing. Big Bird is not going away.
But Romney’s proposal would cripple the portion of public broadcasting that is not as popular, such as those efforts that serve Native Americans.
During the debate Romney talked about ending funding for PBS. But what he really meant (because it’s the government’s funding agency for public television and radio) is the Corporation for Public Broadcast. That agency funds minority programs, including the Native American Public Telecommunications. Seventy percent of that funding, by law, goes to 1,300 local television and radio stations. Recent testimony by the chief executive of CPB said the cost is $1.39 per citizen, substantially less than what is spent by other developed nations.
NAPT’s Executive Director Shirley Sneve, a Rosebud Sioux (or Sicangu Lakota), said Thursday: “Public Broadcasting is the only media outlet that is noncommercial. Historically, it’s one of the most trusted institutions in the country. For Indian country, losing CPB funding would literally cost lives. In the rural areas served by the majority of Native radio stations, it’s a lifeline for help in emergencies. In our work, funding station and independent producers to tell Native stories for PBS audiences, those voices would be silent. Our numbers are so small that this subject matter would be hard to attract corporate advertising.”
She also said that the government gets a good deal for its investment because it only partially funds projects. That “stimulates the economy in professional jobs like writing, photography, engineering, and education.”
There are also more than 40 tribal radio stations, often serving remote locations where there is no commercial alternative including 15 in Alaska. Public radio programs range from a daily talk show, Native America Calling, to Earthsongs, radio that is “authentic and hip, informed and indigenous.”
Ending public broadcast is a long time dream of conservative lawmakers both at the state and federal levels. Even conservative states, such as Idaho, have backed away from that idea because PBS is the only source for non-commercial, historical, and other unique programs for people living in rural areas who cannot afford satellite. Two years ago, for example, Idaho tried to end funding. One Idaho viewer wrote: “This is not big government, it is the people of Idaho determining what type of information is vital to a functioning democracy. It’s about locally produced programming about issues Idahoans care about, rather than the crass, mind-numbing crap served up by commercial media. Large subsidies are granted commercial broadcasters in the form of free access to the broadcast spectrum, yet our lawmakers can’t seem to allocate 9 cents a month per capita for public media. Idaho families deserve better.”
Sneve said the debate about public television is about “the future of our children, truth in media, and the legacy of Native American heritage. If we want our children to continue down the path of destruction and lack of pride in who they are, then elimination of this small amount of federal funding is fine. Projects like the American Graduate initiative and the PBS Learning Media engage youth in learning and exploration. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of smaller government, but this is a jobs program with a product that reflects America through the media. In an era of polarized media, this is an important investment for who we are as Americans.”
(A note of disclosure. I was a reporter last year for PBS’ Frontline. I did a story about clergy sex abuse in Alaska.)
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.