By Aurora Herrera

For the fourth year in a row President Trump has proposed cutting all federal funding for public service media. What would US citizens lose if public media disappears?

The latest US budget proposal calls for the elimination of all federal funding to public media institutions over a two-year period, from $465 million to $30 million and then to zero.

If the Trump administration is successful, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) will no longer receive the funding it allocates to America’s public media organisations, including the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) as well as their local and regional members. Each of these institutions has a massive reach. PBS reaches over 120 million people through television and 26 million people online, while NPR reaches approximately 120 million people across its multiplatform services.

Local news

The proposed cuts would be devastating for communities across the country, with many losing their only connection to representative local news. A 2019 report by PEN America points out that 200 counties have no newspaper at all, while the old economic model which depended on advertising revenue has collapsed due to the rise of the internet and social media. Newspapers have experienced the sharpest declines, losing more than $35 billion in advertising revenue since 2005 and 47 percent of newsroom staff since 2004.

Having “boots on the ground” to cover issues like health and education in local communities is paramount to ensuring local people can make informed choices as well as critically examine government decisions.

In an interview about why local newsrooms matter, Chuck Plunkett,  Director of the News Corps at the University of Colorado Boulder, said “Studies have shown that, when there are fewer reporters in communities, that corruption inevitably starts to grow, taxes start to go up, voter participation starts to drop.”

The report by PEN America also echoed this as one of their key conclusions stating, “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”


The collapse of local newsrooms has also contributed to growing mistrust in the media, with a lack of locally relevant news contributing to a rise in so-called parachute journalism, where national journalists briefly cover topics with limited local knowledge or context. Meanwhile, the spread of misinformation via social media and the role of politicians in detracting from the media’s credibility through accusations of partisanship, have compounded the crisis in trust.

In fact, the very mention of federal cuts for public media – even if unsuccessful – can fuel greater distrust in news media, as Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, explains:

“So every time Trump slices CPB out of a budget, he raises the political salience of public broadcasting as an issue”

“So every time Trump slices CPB out of a budget, he raises the political salience of public broadcasting as an issue,” he said. “It encourages people to think of PBS and NPR as “Republicans” and “Democrats,” not “single mom who likes letting her kid watch PBS Kids. In today’s era of extreme political polarisation, encouraging people to think of something as partisans rather than users drives a lot of them to their political corner.”

But for now PBS and NPR still rank as the most trusted news sources in the United States. A Knight-Gallup survey last year found that PBS and NPR ranked first and second out of 17 organisations, based on the number of people who said they are “not biased at all”. In 2019, PBS and its member stations were voted as the most trusted institutions for news and public affairs programming.

Educational programming

For PBS, this trust is partly maintained by its excellence in children’s programming, which features shows like Sesame Street on its dedicated channel PBS KIDS.

In 2019, PBS KIDS was ranked the #1 educational media brand for children. In that same survey, 83% of parents agreed that PBS prepares children for success in school, with several programmes bringing classroom lessons “to life” and aiding in the construction of a solid foundation in technical skills like math and literacy as well as social and emotional skillsets.

“We provide the only preschool education for more than half of America’s children. We are the backbone of public safety communications networks at the local, state and national levels”

Cuts would therefore devastate essential educational access for millions across the US. America’s Public Television Stations’ President and CEO Patrick Butler points out that  “We provide the only preschool education for more than half of America’s children. We are the backbone of public safety communications networks at the local, state and national levels. And we do more than anyone else to equip America’s citizens for challenging and rewarding work of democracy.”

It has been argued that PBS and NPR might survive budget cuts via concerted funding drives aimed at corporate sponsors and philanthropic members. However, funding that is more reliant on corporate and philanthropic sources poses a serious risk to editorial independence as well as the broadcasters’ ability to provide a plurality of content to diverse audiences. Moreover, local stations that are more reliant on federal funds would struggle to makeup the loss in funding through advertising and donations alone.

PBS CEO Paula Kerger laid out the reality of the cuts in an interview with Politico saying, “When you look at the entire economy of public broadcasting, about 15 percent of the funding for our stations comes from federal appropriations — but that’s an aggregate number,” she said. “For some of our stations in rural parts of the country — so Cookeville, Tennessee, for example, it’s probably about 40 percent.”

The consequences of these proposed cuts would be dire. They would hasten the atrophy of an already weakened news ecosystem, a system that – when supported by independent public media and a plural media landscape – underpins informed democracy. A free and independent press is more important than ever, and institutions like PBS and NPR are indispensable to maintaining a flow of unbiased information, which American citizens can utilise to make informed decisions. If the Trump administration is able to succeed, it will be the beginning of the end for public media in the US.

CPB and PBS are members of the Public Media Alliance.

Header Image: A view from 2017 of the US Capitol after the recent restorations. Credit: erick4x4/iStock