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Why Doesn't Donald Trump's 'American Greatness' Include Bert and Ernie?

The looming fight over funding CPB and NEA

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It's not as if Big Bird and his Sesame Street pals Bert and Ernie haven't been threatened with eviction before. Every decade or so—going back to the 1970s, when Big Bird was newly hatched—a handful of lawmakers have called for defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides essential financial support to PBS and its counterpart National Public Radio. Most of the previous criticism of CPB, and an equal amount of vitriol directed at the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts, never gained much political traction. Most of those critics ended up damaging their own political fortunes by railing against CPB and NEA. Nonetheless, government funding for the arts is again in the crosshairs, with President Donald Trump's finger on the trigger.

"This time it feels more tangible, probably because the latest defunding proposal is coming straight from the White House," said Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

"What would that mean for Idaho?" he added, drawing a deep breath and falling silent for a moment. "Well, any cut would be significant, but it would undoubtedly be much more significant in Idaho. Half of the arts budget in Idaho is through the National Endowment for the Arts. That's about $867,000."

At the headquarters of Idaho Public Television, General Manager Ron Pisaneschi pointed to a pie chart representing IdahoPTV's funding sources for the current fiscal year.

"Nineteen percent of our operating funds come from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Compare that to 26 percent of our revenue coming from the state of Idaho and 55 percent from contributions," he said. "What's the mood like in the wake of the proposal from the White House? Well, when I talk to my colleagues at other public broadcast operations, I think everybody is worried. This isn't the first time that we've been targeted, but it's certainly concerning when it comes from the White House."

Specifically, the threat Pisaneschi calls "concerning" and what Faison terms "tangible" is the seal of the White House stamped on the cover page of "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again." In a letter addressed to Congress and attached to his "budget blueprint," Trump wrote that he wanted to "begin a new chapter of American greatness."

But Trump's "new chapter of American greatness" calls for the elimination of all public funding to the CPB or NEA.

"The elimination of federal funding ... would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media's role in early childhood education," said CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison.

"We're disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and every congressional district in the nation," said NEA Chair Jane Chu.

The Trump White House may want to take a look at a recent survey conducted by top pollsters from both the Democratic and Republican national committees. Pisaneschi had a copy of the survey, which may become people's exhibit No. 1 if the fate of CPB is tried in the court of public opinion.

"They asked the American public what they thought about public broadcasting in general, and federal funding for CPB in particular," said Pisaneschi. "The vast majority—nearly three-fourths—opposed elimination of federal funding. Plus, the majority of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 said they opposed elimination of federal funding. In fact, they said public broadcasting should actually get more funding than it's getting right now."

Pisaneschi, who has been at IdahoPTV since 1985 and became general manager in 2013, knows his audience well. During the recently concluded 17-day spring fund drive, which exceeded its $1.1 million goal, hosts didn't exploit the Trump threat when asking for donations.

"Frankly, our messaging was pretty subtle," Pisaneschi said. "Our viewers are pretty smart. They read the newspaper and see the news. They see that CPB and PBS are being targeted, and we certainly hear from them, asking, 'What can I do to help?' We tell them letting your members of Congress know how you feel about this is always helpful."

Faison couldn't agree more.

"When we're asked—and, yes, we're asked more and more—we tell people to let their members of Congress know what's important to them. When congressmen and women receive phone calls or personal notes—and that's an important distinction, because personal notes matter a whole lot more than email blasts—it matters a great deal more," he said. "So far, our Idaho delegation has been very supportive and sees the National Endowment for the Arts as an integral partner for Idaho."

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