Any of six new bills on Capitol Hill would cut federal funding for National Public Radio (NPR), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and other public media, and Congress could vote on some of them as early as this week. These kinds of cuts have been threatened before, but Josh Stearns, a national advocate for media freedom and reform with the Free Press Action Fund, says the news industry is especially vulnerable today.
"This is a particularly important threat right now because of the state of the economy. We need journalists who are going to be dedicated to that public service mission of journalism. Our public media is our media. It's a national resource, just like our national parks."
Critics of public media say the system is no longer needed, because technology has made more programs available to more people. But Stearns sees the cuts as a threat to First Amendment free-speech rights. According to his organization's research, 30,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the last three years.
Northwest Public Radio, which is part of Washington State University, also faces state higher-education cutbacks. The station manager, Kelly Swanson, says it's becoming a lot harder to budget and maintain the station's regional news network.
"In a lot of areas where we broadcast, especially in the rural parts of Washington, we are often the only source of local news. That is not usually a part of the debate."
More than 70 percent of public media funding goes to local stations.
Moss Bresnahan, general manager of KCTS-TV, the PBS affiliate in Seattle, says polls show public stations have a mix of conservative and liberal viewers and listeners, and that Americans think a national broadcast network is a good use of their tax dollars.
"The way it operates right now is the way Congress set it up to operate. We're actually doing exactly what Congress asked public broadcasting to do: Take this modest investment and turn it into a public-private partnership that really works. We've demonstrated that, and it delivers tremendous value all across the country."
Public broadcasting funding amounts to a yearly cost of about $1.30 per person in the United States, Bresnahan says. By comparison, Great Britain spends $35 a year per person to fund its public broadcasting system, the BBC. In Canada and Japan, it costs each citizen $25 a year.