• Marc Johnson

Symbolic Cuts


Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has waded into the fray over eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and sharply reducing the measly dollars we spend on the national endowments for the humanities and the arts.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Burns – his Civil War documentary may be the best long-form television ever – asks us to remember that during the Great Depression somehow the country found the dollars to support artists, writers and photographers who produced some of the most enduring work of the 20th Century. Surely, he says, we can afford a fraction of a cent of our federal tax dollar for CPB and the endowments.

In the interest of full disclosure, loyal readers need to know I have a strong bias here. I cut my journalism teeth years ago with a daily half-hour broadcast on public television. I have volunteered for 15 years on various boards dedicated to the mission of the public humanities and the bringing of thoughtful programs on American and world culture, history, literature, religion and philosophy to Idahoans and Americans. I’m a true believer in these well established and minimally funded institutions and I also understand the federal budget.

The $420 million we spend on CPB, almost all of which goes to local public TV and radio stations and programs like those Ken Burns makes, and the $168 million we spend on each of the endowments is a total drop in the federal budget bucket. The Pentagon spends that much in an afternoon.

Case in point, Boeing just got an award from the Defense Department to build a new generation of aerial tankers – price tag $35 billion. Assuming Boeing builds a full fleet of 179 tankers, that averages out to about $195 million per plane. That buys a whole lot of what the endowments and CPB provide Americans.

I know, I know, we need new aerial tankers to replace those in service since Eisenhower was in the White House, but don’t we also need a place – for a tiny fraction of the cost – where Ken Burns’ documentaries reach a huge audience or where the humanities endowment supports a local museum or library?

Congress and the president continue the gandy dance around the real need to address the federal budget deficit. We have a crisis in three areas – defense spending, Medicare and Social Security. We need to address a combination of very difficult tradeoffs. Extend the retirement age, means test Medicare, reduce the size and scope of our military power on every continent and raise taxes. It’s easier to say than to cut, but there you have the real issues.

Anyone who tells you we can address the dismal federal deficit by cutting CPB and the National Endowments is practicing demagoguery on the scope of Huey Long, the subject, by the way, of a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Much of this debate, it must be noted, is about ideology rather than real budget savings. Some conservatives assail public broadcasting or the pointy headed humanities and arts community as the preserve of “liberals.” Nonsense. William F. Buckley found a home on PBS. Were the great man alive today, do you think he could find a place on Fox or CNN? Not a chance. Listen to a week of The NewsHour or Morning Edition and really consider the range of views, opinion and ideology you hear. Public TV and radio have become one of the few real clearinghouses of ideas about the American condition. Not liberal, not conservative, but truly fair and balanced.

America is a country of ideas. We have thrived for as long as we have because we value the big debate, the chance for lots of voices – from Ken Burns to the Red Green Show (on PBS) to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and a summer teacher institute in Idaho (funded by the Idaho Humanities Council) – to be heard, considered, rejected and embraced.

We must get serious about the federal deficit. We must also recognize that a guy as talented as Ken Burns would never have a chance in the “marketplace media.” A long-form documentary on baseball, jazz, the National Parks or World War II simply won’t find a place in modern commercial broadcasting. So, eliminating that platform is really a decision to eliminate the ideas represented there.

If we lose what a Ken Burns represents, we lose a connection with our history and our culture that simply can’t be replaced. We will regret it, but not as much as our children.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson