Should the Public Fund Media & the Arts?

President Trump has proposed eliminating federal funding for public media and the arts. What do students think? In this activity, students learn about the debate, discuss it, and research one program they think either should or should not be funded.  

To the Teacher:

President Donald Trump has announced plans to eliminate government funding for the arts and public broadcasting. The cuts are part of Trump’s stated goal of reducing government spending overall while greatly increasing the military budget. Proponents of publicly funded art and media are worried that cutting these programs will rob millions of Americans of high-quality educational and cultural programming.

This lesson is divided into two readings designed to have students explore the issue of public funding for arts and media. The first reading looks at public broadcasting, reviewing the arguments of those who believe that public television and National Public Radio should receive state funding and those who do not. The second reading similarly considers the issue of federal funding for agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Questions for discussion follow each reading. An extension activity has students research and discuss programs they are for or against funding.




Ask students if they’ve ever watched programs on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). If so, what was the program? (Possibilities include everything from Sesame Street to Nova, Nature, Great Performances and Frontline). 

Tell students that PBS is partly funded by the federal government as a way to enable the public to enjoy free educational and cultural programs. The U.S. government has also provided funding for arts programming through agencies including the Endowment for the Arts, with the idea that people should have free access to arts programs.

President Trump has promised to eliminate funding for public broadcasting and the arts, which has touched off a firestorm of debate. We’ll find out more and discuss the issue today.


Reading 1:
Government Funding for Public Broadcasting

President Donald Trump plans to eliminate government funding for the arts and public broadcasting. These cuts are part of Trump’s push to reduce government spending overall while greatly increasing the military budget. 

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney defended what he called Trump’s "hard-power budget": "Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?" he asked during an interview on MSNBC. "The answer is no. We can ask them to pay for defense and we will, but we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

But proponents of this funding note that the amount the U.S. government spends on public radio and television (including National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) comes to less than .1 percent of the federal budget.  Yet these entities provide free educational and cultural programming for millions of Americans. Cutting funding for them would be especially harmful to people who might not otherwise have access to such  programming - including people in rural areas and people with limited incomes.

Opposing this view is Trevor Burrus, research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Burrus argued in an October 11, 2012 opinion article for U.S. News & World Report that public broadcasting does not require federal funding to continue. Moreover, he contended, public broadcasting is no longer the only programming that can provide quality educational content to the American people. He wrote:

The case for defunding public broadcasting is very simple. First, public broadcasting does not need federal money. Before the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, noncommercial broadcasting thrived. National Educational Television, which eventually merged with PBS, was largely funded through grants from foundations such as the Ford Foundation. Currently, public broadcasting only receives about 15 percent of its budget from federal funding. The rest comes from corporations, foundations, and viewers like us.

Second, our media-rich environment has obviated the need for public broadcasting. Even before the Internet, which provides seemingly unlimited educational and cultural content, cable channels such as Discovery and Bravo had already pushed aside public broadcasting as the premier provider of educational programming. The government should only use the hard-earned money of taxpayers to fund things that would not exist otherwise. In 1967, it was argued that, with only three channels available to most people, there was nowhere to see educational programming. Now, no one can reasonably claim this.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) counters that federal funding for public broadcasting is vital to its mission of continued, quality programming for all. On March 16, 2017, Patricia Harrison, President and CEO of the CPB, issued a statement about President Trump’s proposed elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting. She wrote:

There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services. The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions - for Americans in both rural and urban communities.

Public media is one of America’s best investments. At approximately $1.35 per citizen per year, it pays huge dividends to every American. From expanding opportunity, beginning with proven children’s educational content to providing essential news and information as well as ensuring public safety and homeland security through emergency alerts, this vital investment strengthens our communities. It is especially critical for those living in small towns and in rural and underserved areas.

Viewers and listeners appreciate that public media is non-commercial and available for free to all Americans. We will work with the new Administration and Congress in raising awareness that elimination of federal funding to CPB begins the collapse of the public media system itself and the end of this essential national service.

As discussions about the federal budget heat up, so will public debate on the issue - and protests by people who appreciate programming on PBS and NPR.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. What are some arguments against federal funding for public media? Do you find these convincing? Why or why not?
  3. How does the Corporation for Public Broadcasting respond to its critics? What are its strongest and weakest points?
  4. What do you think? Is programming on public television and public radio stations something that is worth preserving?
  5. Does public media benefit you? Does it benefit other Americans? How? Explain your position.



Reading 2:
Government Funding for the Arts

The federal government has been funding the arts for some five decades. This includes funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which supports arts programs around the country and helps bring art to low-income communities.

President Trump’s proposal to cut such funding is the latest action in a long history of ideological disagreements over the role of the federal government in supporting the arts.

Critics of public funding for the arts argue that taxpayers should not have to support artwork that they may not like or agree with. But defenders of public art funding contend it provides many benefits for students and Americans at large, and represents a modest investment in the future of the country.

In a March 8, 2017, opinion article for Fox News, reporter and news commentator John Stossel made the case against public funding for art, arguing that such funding fails to produce art that presents diverse points of view. Stossel wrote:

Government has no business funding art. When politicians decide which ideas deserve a boost, art is debased. When they use your money to shape the culture, they shape it in ways that make culture friendlier to government.

As The Federalist's Elizabeth Harrington points out, the National Endowment for the Arts doesn't give grants to sculpture honoring the Second Amendment or exhibitions on the benefits of traditional marriage. They fund a play about "lesbian activists who oppose gun ownership" and "art installations about climate change."

The grant-making establishment is proudly leftist. A Trump administration won't change that...

It's not just the politics that are wrong. Government arts funding doesn't even go to the needy. Arts grants tend to go to people who got prior arts grants.

Some have friends on grant-making committees. Some went to the same schools as the people who pick what to subsidize. They know the right things to say on applications so they look "serious" enough to underwrite. They're good at writing applications. They're not necessarily good at art.

Many artists, curators, performers, and museum professionals have argued against such assertions, however. They believe that providing Americans with access to the arts is an important public benefit that costs the government very little. Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts amounts to about .01% of the federal budget.

In a March 16, 2017, opinion article for CNN, actresses Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton contended that public funding for the arts benefits the country enormously, particularly its students. Andrews and Hamilton wrote:

Decades worth of research attests to the fact that the arts are among the most profoundly important and valuable ways to improve learning and promote success, from early childhood through adulthood.

Indeed, according to four longitudinal studies compiled and published by the National Endowment for the Arts, young people who engage regularly with the arts are twice as likely to read for pleasure, three times more likely to win an award for attendance or be elected to class office, and four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement or perform community service.

These students have higher grade-point averages and standardized test scores, and lower dropout rates, and they reap these benefits regardless of socioeconomic status.

And yet, the arts are the first to go when the budget ax falls. Now, with the shifting priorities of our new presidential administration, artists and arts organizations are at serious risk of losing the support they need to do their invaluable work. Funding resources, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, are in danger of being eliminated altogether. And poor, inner-city and rural communities, whose access to such resources are scarce to begin with, will shoulder a disproportionate share of those losses.

This is mind-boggling to us, considering how much the arts benefit our lives and our world. They foster collaboration and creativity, essential skills for navigating in the workplace and surviving in a challenging world. They cultivate empathy and tolerance, by bridging cultural and socioeconomic divides. They're also good for business: They spur urban renewal, promote tourism and generate hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity annually.

As the Trump administration puts forward budgets that endanger public arts funding, this debate is likely to intensify.



For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Why does John Stossel believe that public funding does not produce good art? Do you find his argument convincing?
  3. Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton cite research indicating that public arts funding helps students. Do you think that this is a compelling reason to continue such funding?
  4. What do you think? Should public funding for the arts be maintained, cut, or increased? Explain your position.


Extension Activity

Ask students to pick a particular federally funded television or radio program or arts program that they either think should be funded, or should not be funded. If they don’t know of a program, ask them to research the possibilities and choose one.

Then ask students to research the program, and to complete this chart.

In class, have students share information from their chart. Ask:

  • What program did you pick? 
  • Do you think it should be funded? Why or why not?
  • Do you think that art or media programs that some of us disagree with or don't like should be funded anyway? Why or why not? What value might there be in making available art or educational programming that we don't understand or agree with?

If students have strong feelings about the public funding of  art and media in general), work with them to decide on an action step they can take to advocate for their view, either as a group or individually.


-- Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner