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The Deepest of Cuts
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Governor’s Budget Cuts In Alaska Promise Outsized Impact

Is politics behind the cleaver that was dropped on public media in Alaska?

This summer, PBS rolled out a new animated children’s show, Molly of Denali, featuring the adventures of a Native Alaskan girl and her friends. It’s a landmark show, the first to depict life in an indigenous community and headlined by a First Peoples character.

It is ironic that Molly debuted just as Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy was dropping a cleaver on the budgets of public broadcasters who provide everything from kids shows to vital emergency broadcast signals to a widespread and underserved audience.

There’s no real danger, yet, that Alaska Public Media or KUAC – based at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks – will stop showing Molly of Denali or the NewsHour. Those shows come to Alaskans from PBS. What’s on the butcher block are locally produced news and public affairs programs that had gone out to remote corners of the nation’s largest state. At least $1.1 million was cut by Dunleavy. He used line-item veto power to trim spending he's convinced can be replaced by private donations.

“ ... We did the work to demonstrate our balanced political coverage. The governor has been on our shows and his team has been very responsive to us,” said Ed Ulman, Alaska Public Media’s CEO, who went on to describe the loss of $400,000 from the APM annual budget as a tough challenge at a time when efforts to engage audiences beyond “the screen and the microphone” had been succeeding. “Our commitment to the mission of reaching as many Alaskans has grown … behind efforts like Molly (of Denali), a 24-hour feed and PBS Kids.”

Such arguments staved off previous attempts to eliminate public media support from the Alaska state budget, Ulman said. “Public Media leaders in Alaska talked about the vital public service … We convinced (politicians) that relatively small amount of state money that went to the system really supported an important broadcast infrastructure in a state where it’s a challenge to provide communications for remote residents.”

Dunleavy is among many U.S. politicians who believe tax dollars should not go toward subsidizing the likes of Downton Abbey. It’s an uninformed position, at least. Instead it betrays a practiced message aimed at voters, and combines three frequent memes in U.S. conservative politics – the media, balanced budgets and taxes.

Latest in a Long Fight

For almost as long as PBS and National Public Radio have been on the air, conservative presidents, senators and governors have whipped up crowds with promises to trim Big Bird’s feathers. The chorus rose to a fever pitch this summer after the animated children's show Arthur depicted the rodent’s school teacher walking down the aisle with another male character in a widely watched – and applauded – episode.

But there's no getting around the truth that the episode startled many. Even within the PBS family, some local station executives privately expressed concern the depiction of a same-sex wedding might add new fuel to calls to defund public media.

Some politicians were already there. In each of his federal budget proposals, President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating arts funding and public support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Those efforts have failed, so far, because the public and enough politicians – even many conservatives – see that the .015 or so of the federal budget that goes to public broadcasting is quite the bargain. We're better off for that sliver of public spending. Research has shown, for example, that PBS KIDS’ slate of shows help children socialize. There are now a couple of generations of Americans who’ve grown up to be good citizens because, in part, of PBS programming.

“PBS, our 350 member stations and our legions of local supporters will continue to remind leaders … of the significant benefits the public receives in return for federal funding, a modest investment of about $1.35 per citizen per year, which include school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, public safety communications and lifelong learning,” said PBS President Paula Kerger, in a Vanity Fair article during the 2018 debate over public media funding.

Politics Gets In Way

Today I am convinced that what really bothers many politicians is good ratings for programs like Frontline and the NewsHour, which are not shy of holding truth to power. They do so, generally, with a balanced approach that's admiried by journalists and audiences alike. It is telling that about half of the messages to me portray PBS public affairs shows as bastions of liberal fellow travelers. Yet many others say corporate donations cause us to lean too far to the right. My late father-in-law was a U.S. Air Force coronel and veteran of three wars. He like to tell me that a pilot sees more ground-to-air flak flying right over a target. This is to say that I believe PBS’ public affairs shows generally get it right – down near the middle – and thus are destined to draw flak from all sides. It’s not just me in the public media admiration camp: According to independent polls, PBS and NPR are among the least biased and most trusted U.S. news outlets.

It may sound, perhaps, that I'm discounting Alaska-like threats to cut public media budgets. Federal lawmakers and statehouse legislators have, afterall, failed year after year. Clear-thinking legislators have previously reversed cuts by a few governors.

I am writing this out of genuine concern about the message now coming to the lower 48 from Alaska: You can cut public media funding and make it stick. I anticipate Gov. Dunleavy will be sought out by fiscal hawks everywhere for advice on how they, too, can finally check off an item on the conservative wish list.

Public Media Pushes Back

There are, however, ways public media can push back.

“(We must) engage with local legislators and the public. Continue to push the fact the public broadcasting has an educational mission … It is a mission that is award winning and in my opinion unparalleled by any other entity,” said Keith Martin, general manager of KUAC, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

And because de-funding campaigns are nearly as frequent as a pledge week, PBS executives have, over the years, come up with ways to help member stations.

“There are several ways PBS can help stations achieve or maintain financial sustainability. These include national and regional training opportunities, surfacing best practices, encouraging local news collaborations and supporting station mergers where they make sense,” said Thomas Crockett, PBS’ vice president for station services.

One tool, collaborative news gathering and public service programming, has helped small stations in Alaska and around the country cope with cuts and produce public affairs shows on local issues. Such cost sharing is on the minds of Ulman at APM and Martin at KUAC, although the latter adds a note of caution because of Alaska's particular geography.

“It seems most collaborations occur with stations that are co-located or have over lapping markets. It makes sense,” Martin said, adding that the station already shares news with other public broadcasters in Alaska, but that deeper collaboration in Alaska is a tricky proposition.

“In our particular situation, Anchorage and Fairbanks are separated by 350 miles, which includes the highest mountain range in North America,” Martin added. “We have yet to determine a model where one side or the other does not incur additional expenses at the expense of the other’s cost savings.”

Still, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Alaskans.

KUAC is critical to communications in remote Alaska. It is the aggregation point for a state broadcast service that connects 200 or so bush communities and provides feeds for translators from various stations around the state.

Martin said in an email that after the governor's action, he’s had to start by suspending three TV and two FM radio feeds and laying off two staffers. The cuts slashed at least 22 percent from the KUAC budget.

Coping with the cuts will be an uphill battle in Alaska. It has a small population spread over a vast region.

Moreover, influencial public media haters are taking advantage of what I believe are two inherent problems for journalists and broadcasters: One is that lies are easy to spread. They fit on bumper stickers. The truth, in turn, seems always complex and requires much ink and air time to convey. Second, pristinely objective public affairs broadcasting is elusive, almost impossible, even though we promise to deliver news in an envelope of objectivity. I’ve long believed that media outlets are better off admitting that all humans – journalists included – are informed and moved by predilections and prejudice. We think and act subjectively every day.

To me, the more important guide words for journalists and public affairs producers ought to be “accuracy” and “fairness.” If those two standards are reflected in our news stories and documentaries, we will appeal to our audience’s fundamental sense of fair play.

But we can’t do that if we do not have the resources to keep websites updated and microphones and satellite dishes plugged in.

Posted on Oct. 1, 2019