June 10, 2024 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

In Trump’s second act, say goodbye to public media

A conservative plan seeks to eliminate PBS, NPR, Pacifica, American Public Media, and sell off your local stations, writes Claire Bond Potter.

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Editor’s note: I’m sending the following to Editorial Board subscribers only. It first appeared in Political Junkie, Claire’s newsletter. –JS

One of the things that is lost in the many conversations about whether Trump voters will or will not support a convicted felon in November is how much a larger rightwing establishment has invested in this election. Frightening as he is, Donald Trump it’s the tip of the iceberg. Obscured by The Former Guy’s gargantuan shadow, perpetual belly-aching and endless insults to democratic norms is a vast collection of institutions funded by wealthy Americans who understand the 2024 election as a moment to seize power, not just over the political and judicial system, but the culture.

We have seen these institutions flex their muscle at the state level, producing draconian abortion restrictions that seek to criminalize patients and their doctors, and force pre-teen children to birth a rapist’s progeny; laws that cause people who desperately want children to carry dying fetuses that will kill them or render them permanently infertile. We have seen these zealots jam through laws, sometimes over Republican governors’ vetos, to not just end care for transgender youth, but also shame them and their families into submission.

We have had to imagine a world in which abortion, transgender rights and the freedom to read and be publicly gay are threatened and proscribed. But we have not yet imagined a world in which we are not even permitted to think together about those things over public channels that are committed to honest conversations.

We have seen how far conservatives will go to suppress speech: the book bans in multiple states and, most recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s order that, during his recently declared “Freedom Summer,” there will be no displays of rainbow lights on state bridges during Pride month. (In a bold move recently, the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union reported that 70 queers in Jacksonville lined up on “the pedestrian walkway of the Main Street Bridge and simultaneously turned on high-powered flashlights that lit the bridge in a ribbon of rainbow colors arching above the St. Johns River.)

But Project 2025, a Presidential Transition Project run out of the conservative Heritage Foundation, reveals a bigger and more comprehensive plan to smash alternatives to conservatism and assemble an army of bureaucrats to implement a permanent, rightwing administrative state. I am not sure why no one is reporting on this, because the project’s plans and strategies are outlined in Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, an almost 1,000 page “playbook” for the first 180 days of Trump II.

This all assumes that someone is in control of Trump, of course. You may recall that during his first presidential transition, which former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie oversaw, Jared Kushner took all the binders of information Christie had gathered and literally threw them in a trash can.

However, Project 2025 is much bigger, seems to have a lot of heavy hitters behind it, and presents the possibility that Trump would only be a figurehead in his own administration. Directed by three former Trump administration officials: Paul Dans, chief of staff at the US Office of Personnel Management; Spencer Chretien, a special assistant and associate director of presidential personnel; and Troup Hemenway, a member of the 2016 presidential transition team in the Trump campaign policy team and associate director for national security in the Office of Presidential Personnel.

These are people who seem to know what they are doing. Similarly, Mandate for Leadership contains dozens of essays by other people who are not fooling around. Name a Republican wet dream from the 75 years: it is in there, and they promise a Trump administration will do it.

For example, killing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports nonprofit media in the United States.

That’s right. As I was scrolling through the table of contents, my eye landed on one by Mike Gonzalez about eliminating all taxpayer funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Every Republican President since Richard Nixon has tried to strip the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) of taxpayer funding,” Gonzalez writes. Young Antonin Scalia warned Nixon that public broadcasting was a mistake because, since its inception, “public broadcasting immediately became a liberal forum for public affairs and journalism.”

It is undoubtedly true that these are liberal, but in this sense: PBS and NPR are literally liberal forums. They are marketplaces for ideas and, that unlike cable news, political liberals and political conservatives are not only represented, but often in dialogue with each other. But no matter. “Not only is the federal government trillions of dollars in debt and unable to afford the more than half a billion dollars squandered on leftist opinion each year,” Gonzalez fumes, “but the government should not be compelling the conservative half of the country to pay for the suppression of its own views.”

Eliminating funding for the CPB is not only fiscally and ideologically conservative, Gonzalez argues, but good politics. “Conservatives will thus reward a president who eliminates this tyrannical situation. PBS and NPR do not even bother to run programming that would attract conservatives,” he writes. Citing research generated by Pew (which he characterizes as liberal, but it is actually non-partisan), Gonzalez notes that “25 percent of PBS’s audience is ‘mostly liberal,’ and 35 percent is ‘consistently liberal.’ That is 60 percent liberal compared to 15 percent conservative (11 percent ‘mostly conservative’ and 4 percent ‘consistently conservative’).” 

Weirdly, to me that sounds like a pretty diverse audience. I also wanted to know — who are the other 25 percent? Marxists? Confused? Children? Furthermore, I am kind of thrilled 15 percent of PBS’s audience are avowed conservatives. Good for you.

But no: in Trump II, the CPB must die. How to do it? The answer: cut public broadcasting off without a nickel. As Gonzalez explains:

The 47th president can just tell the Congress — through the budget he proposes and through personal contact —that he will not sign an appropriations spending bill that contains a penny for the CPB. The president may have to use the bully pulpit, as NPR and PBS have teams of lobbyists who have convinced enough members of Congress to save their bacon every time their taxpayer subsidies have been at risk since the Nixon era.

In other words, use executive power to hold the nation — the military, social security, the whole nine yards — hostage while public broadcasting is finally brought to heel.

You can see there is a fatal flaw in this plan: it is very stupid and impractical, and invokes government shutdown, a strategy that has not worked since the 1990s, as the perfect solution.

In addition, Gonzalez either understands little about how public broadcasting works, or is lying, when he states that “defunding CPB would by no means cause NPR or PBS — or other public broadcasters that benefit from CPB funding, including the even-further-to-the left Pacifica Radio and American Public Media — to file for bankruptcy.” 

Maybe it would and maybe it wouldn’t, but according to Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), although the media companies named above have alternative funding, by law, the CPB must distribute the lion’s share of its budget to local public television and public radio stations across the country. Those entities then use the funds to bring programming from NPR, PBS, Pacifica and American Public Media to their communities.

This idea is framed as another volley in the culture war: Gonzalez wishes to strip these stations of their privileged status and elites of their precious programming. Eliminating public funding would, he argues,

mean that NPR, PBS, Pacifica Radio and the other leftist broadcasters would be shorn of the presumption that they act in the public interest and receive the privileges that often accompany so acting. They should no longer, for example, be qualified as noncommercial education stations (NCE stations), which they clearly no longer are. NPR, Pacifica and the other radio ventures have zero claim on an educational function (the original purpose for which they were created by President Johnson), and the percentage of on-air programming that PBS devotes to educational endeavors such as “Sesame Street” (programs that are themselves biased to the left) is small.

However, getting the programming off the air may not even be truly what is at stake here. Bankrupting, and stripping the local stations of their educational status, would also make their frequencies available for sale to commercial media companies at a historical moment when there are virtually no frequencies left to buy. And these are very valuable frequencies, my friends. As Gonzales casually mentions, the Federal Communications Commission “reserves the 20 stations at the lower end of the radio frequency (between 88 and 108 MHz on the FM band)” and “lower-frequency stations can be heard farther away and are easier to find as they lie on the left end of the radio dial[.]”

In other words, not only will forums for ideas be shuttered, but the broadcasting infrastructure could be sold off to Trump cronies who could turn every one of them into another Fox.

This is existential for American media and for the future of the public square. We have had to imagine a world in which abortion, transgender rights and the freedom to read and be publicly gay are threatened and proscribed. But we have not yet imagined a world in which we are not even permitted to think together about those things over public channels that are committed to honest conversations.

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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