The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s budget will probably slash public media, but the biggest losers won’t be PBS and NPR

Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill of PBS moderated a Democratic presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on Feb. 11, 2016. (Morry Gash/AP)

President Trump's impending budget proposal is expected to include deep cuts to public media, among other things, which would surely delight Republicans who have been trying, on and off, to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for five decades.

In January, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) filed a bill (again) that would strip federal funding from an agency that receives $445 million per year. Lamborn said in a statement that “this is not about content,” but accusations of liberal bias have long been embedded in efforts to cut off the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“I don't understand why they call it public broadcasting,” then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in 1995, during another GOP attempt to defund the agency. “As far as I am concerned, there's nothing public about it; it's an elitist enterprise. Rush Limbaugh is public broadcasting.”

If Republicans are hoping to cripple political coverage by NPR and PBS, however, stopping the flow of taxpayer dollars to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting might not have the desired effect. NPR relies on the corporation for less than 1 percent of its revenue, and PBS depends on the agency for less than 7 percent, according to data from 2014, the most recent year for which audited financial statements for all three entities were available.

Trump budget expected to seek historic contraction of federal workforce

Because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has low overhead costs, it distributes almost all of the taxpayer money it receives, in the form of grants. From its $445 million appropriation in 2014, the corporation paid out $441.7 million, or 99.3 percent.

The vast majority of that money, 90.3 percent, went to local stations in places such asLawton, Okla., and Texarkana, Tex., not to PBS and NPR.

Defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would primarily affect local public broadcasters, not PBS and NPR — a point the agency made in a statement responding to Lamborn's bill.

The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40 to 50 percent of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment

Unsurprisingly, much of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's grant money is directed toward media-dense states such as New York and California, which are reliably blue. But stations in the states that voted for Trump received $186.1 million in 2014.

In other words, defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would mean hurting the local TV and radio stations that a whole lot of Republican voters watch and listen to.

It is worth noting that a second bill filed by Lamborn would prohibit local public radio stations from using grant money to buy NPR programming. NPR earns more than one-third of its revenue by charging local stations to air its content.

Lamborn's bill is an attempt to harm NPR indirectly, by telling local stations that they cannot spend their grant money on shows such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” It could work. Or stations could make cuts to local, original programming and spend whatever they manage to raise from listeners on NPR.