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Forget Me Elmo

Yuppie elites are too worried about NPR—and not worried enough about PBS.

Ever since the Republican budget proposed to cut federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, everyone has been worried about what the reductions would mean for NPR. Congressional Democrats vowed to defend the popular radio network from cuts, while Republicans—joined by a chorus of newspaper editorials and magazine articles—argued that the station would be just fine, thank you, without federal subsidies. In truth, the cuts would hurt NPR. But what’s even more disturbing is that, in the midst of a culture war over yuppie, liberal-leaning NPR, people seem to have forgotten just how much damage would be done to vastly more egalitarian PBS.

The Republican budget reductions would indeed devastate NPR: A number of articles have cited the fact that NPR gets roughly 2 percent of its national budget from the federal government, but that statistic is actually quite misleading. (So misleading, actually, that it apparently fooled NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller, who was caught on tape by conservative prankster James O’Keefe stating that NPR would be better off without federal funds.) In reality, because 34 percent of NPR’s funds come from federally subsidized local stations that would lose their funding, the total hit to NPR would be much higher.

Yet given all that, it’s likely that the damage done to PBS would be even worse. While NPR’s national organization takes less than 2 percent of its budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS gets 16 percent. Add this to the fees PBS collects from local stations, which fund the national organization in a fashion similar to NPR, and the loss in funding could affect 48 percent of PBS’s budget.

Why does no one seem to care? Republicans have said they’re targeting NPR because it has a liberal bias. And other supporters of the cuts have pointed out that it caters to wealthy, well-educated yuppies. They may be right in that assessment: As an editorial in the Miami Herald put it, fairly accurately, “The average NPR listener is white, 50 years old, holds a managerial or professional job and has a household income of $90,000. He (yes, he’s probably male) is … four times more likely to have gone to graduate school. And he’s a lot more likely to be from Boston or San Francisco than Peoria or Topeka.” (The true median income of NPR listeners is $86,000.) Meanwhile, much of the pushback from upscale liberals seems to have focused on NPR for exactly the same reasons: They’re afraid they won’t be able to poach eggs and drink coffee on Sunday morning anymore while listening to “This American Life.” None of these criticisms apply to PBS, whose viewers mirror the demographic makeup of the United States almost exactly, yet its budget still appears to be on the chopping block along with NPR’s.

And PBS not only serves a wide variety of Americans, but provides many of them with substantive benefits. Its curriculum-based children’s programming is popular with parents who home school their children (a constituency that is popular with Republicans) and research shows that low-income children who watch some PBS programs show improvement in literacy and standardized testing. One could argue that cable channels like Discovery and the History Channel offer equally educational programming without help from taxpayers, but not every family can afford cable: 14 million of the viewers that tune in to PBS each month live in households with no access to cable TV.

Of course, the Republican budget cuts may never become law, since the White House and Senate have made it clear that they are against eliminating funding for public broadcasting. But nobody knows how the budget negotiations will ultimately play out, and these symbolic cuts could easily be a starting point for a budget compromise that leaves the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hamstrung. And it would be a shame if populists and yuppies, fighting a culture war over tony NPR, ended up taking down PBS in the process.

Eliza Gray is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. 

Follow @tnr on Twitter.