This is the amount of money that taxpayers in Colorado’s 5th Congressional District alone have spent on the War in Iraq: $934 million.
And this is the amount of money that freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents the 5th CD, last week proposed stripping from the national Corporation for Public Broadcasting : $420 million.
That’s right. Lamborn wanted to take a whack at NPR and PBS and programs like Sesame Street and BBC News and Antiques Roadshow and Frontline and This Old House that appear on hundreds of public television and radio stations in every state in the country. And the amount at stake was less than half of what his constituents alone have spent on the war.
Lamborn’s spokesman, Chris Harvin, terms the effort to eliminate public broadcasting money “fiscally responsible.” But Wick Rowland, the president and CEO of KBDI Channel 12, a public station that reaches more than 80 percent of the residents of Colorado, has a different take.
“The size of funding for public broadcasting is a grain of sand on the federal budget beach,” Rowland said. “You’re not going to balance the budget on the back of public broadcasting and culture.”
Lamborn’s July 18 effort to kill funding for public broadcasting was overwhelmingly rejected, with a vote of 357 to 72. It also comes just two weeks after he introduced another amendment to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts – which failed on a 335 to 97 vote. That proposed cut represented $160 million.
“Some kind of measure like this comes up almost every year,” says Rowland, of KBDI. The station receives an estimated 15 to 18 percent of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – a little more than the average – and is broadcast on stations up along the Front Range and the Western Slope, reaching an estimated 80 to 85 percent of Colorado residents.
In all, there are an estimated 20 public radio and television stations in Colorado.
Some of their budgets reflect a lower percentage of federal funds, but in KBDI’s case, Rowland said, “That money is what gives us the margin to give us local programming – including the many public affairs programs that we have like Latin View and Colorado Inside Out.” (KBDI also produces the popular Aaron Harber show and other local programs.)
Rowland says he has not yet had the opportunity to meet with Lamborn, who was elected to Congress last year. But he describes the result of the pattern of continuing threats by some conservative members of Congress, to defund public broadcasting.
“What is does is put the institution of public broadcasting on a defensive mode,” he said.
At the same time, virtually no increases in funding forces many stations often scrambling to maintain the status quo.
“It does not allow the system the opportunity to do more, and think in larger terms. We seldom have the opportunity to collect our thoughts and make plans .”
In the United States, the annual cost per taxpayer for public broadcasting comes to about $1.50 – a tiny amount compared to most other industrialized countries, which average between $25 to $100 per person, Rowland said.
Britain spends close to $6 billion a year on public broadcasting. Canada spends between $30 and $40 per person. New Zealand, Australia. Scandinavian countries, even Japan, are exceedingly supportive of funding public broadcasting.
But with barebones funding, the United States is hard-pressed to deliver the equivalent of a Masterpiece Theater, for example, or other similar high-quality shows based on literature and history and contemporary arts.
Not lost on Rowland is the irony: Social conservatives like Lamborn are often the most vocal critics of the banalities of corporate television. The continued stream of sex and stench and all-Paris-all-the-time feeds Wall Street investors, but does little by way of providing brain food to the masses.
“In other countries when public broadcasting began it was seen as an extension of the arts, theater, of language – a national identity, if you will,” Rowland noted.
“In the United States broadcasting began as a an advertising sales mechanism and to promote consumer consumption. Those are dramatically different places to be starting at…”
And, with the reality that the corporate marketplace is controlled by ratings and circulation figures – and no calculus for quality programming, “We know that historically over time its very, very rare that the current commercial system develops quality entertainment,” he said.
When explaining his desire to strip public broadcasting of $420 million, Lamborn was quoted by the Associated Press: “Taxpayers are being asked to pay more in taxes because Congress is not willing to make hard choices and balance our spending with our income.”
This week, his spokesman further explained Lamborn’s rationale:
“He’s trying to be fiscally responsible,” Harvin said. “We’re at war and we have to make tough decisions. [Lamborn] thinks [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] raises most of their money from the private sector, and he wants to cut some of the public funds and be more fiscally responsible.
“He believes in fiscal responsibility.”
Noting Harvin’s reference to the war, this reporter pointed out the $934 million that so far has been spent in Lamborn’s district alone in Iraq. All told, so far Congress has spent $456 billion on the Iraq War, according to the National Priorities Project (NPP), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit research group.
The spokesman was asked whether the congressman has a ceiling on the amount he is willing to spend on the war.
“I haven’t talked to him about that,” Harvin said.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org