How U.S. Public Broadcasting Works

Public Broadcasting Controversies
Ben Winkler speaks to the crowd who came show their support for PBS, urging Congress not to defund CPB, near the Capitol on March 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for

Despite the generally positive reception public radio and TV has in the U.S., there have been some criticisms over the years.

The most prominent is perhaps that public media is left-leaning and an organization getting money from the government shouldn't have a bias. This idea was exacerbated in 2011, when then-NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller resigned after an undercover video surfaced showing one of her executives calling Republican tea party members "seriously racist, racist people" [source: CBS News]. A 2011 article on looked at NPR's Twitter connections, which revealed a somewhat left-of-center fan base [sources: Bercovici]. On the other hand, at least one former NPR host thinks the organization is too conservative and that its reports "sound like little more than Pentagon press releases" [source: Ragusea]. NPR execs insist it's neutral and presents both sides of the issues du jour.

Another repeated controversy is the government funding of public media. In that same undercover video, the NPR executive said the network would be better off long-term without federal funding. Without it, he said, NPR would be independent and free of the misconception that most of its funding comes from the government.

This is ironic, as calls to defund public broadcasting most often come from conservatives. But people on both sides of the political divide have said that public media could do without government funding. They point out that once the government starts shelling out bucks to news outlets, it expects something in return: favorable coverage.

It's certainly possible there is some self-censorship among America's public media. But the U.S. has a strong culture of freedom of the press and PBS has aired several documentaries critical of U.S. government policies. NPR also consistently interviews critics of current U.S. presidents in power on its major shows.

In early 2017, President Donald Trump proposed draining all federal funds from CPB, meaning no more federal money for NPR and PBS. As we said earlier, the amounts involved are small. But those in the public media business say defunding would be quite damaging, especially to stations in small markets where the federal investment can make up 40 to 50 percent of its budget [source: Ingram]. CPB contributions also pay for the Public Broadcasting System's technical infrastructure as well as copyright fees [source: CPB].

Most Americans seem to support the government funding. In a January 2017 survey, 76 percent of those polled said they oppose the elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting [source: Hart Research/American Viewpoint].