I like to say that leadership is a choice. As our leaders in Washington confront tough decisions about our budget priorities, I urge them to continue federal funding for public broadcasting. Public broadcasting makes our nation smarter, stronger and, yes, safer. It’s a small public investment that pays huge dividends for Americans. And it shouldn’t be pitted against spending more on improving our military. That’s a false choice.
This might seem like an unlikely position for me, a 34-year combat veteran. But it’s a view that has been shaped by my career leading brave men and women who thrive and win when they are both strong and smart. My experience has taught me that education, trusted institutions and civil discourse are the lifeblood of a great nation.
Public broadcasting plays a special role with young children. According to the Pew Research Center, rising numbers of American children live with one parent or with two parents who both work.
My son and daughter-in-law are a two-income family with two children, and day care is a part of their lives. Many other parents must get by without day care services. These parents are busy in the morning and busy at night. They want to protect their children from over-commercialized content. And they strive to prepare their children for school and lifelong learning. Having thoughtful television, games and other media that is not commercially driven is essential to good parenting.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than half of all kids in our country do not have the opportunity to attend a preschool program. I’ve also seen research that PBS local stations reach more children ages 2 to 5 than any other children’s network, and the new dedicated PBS Kids channel is the only free national programming for children that is available anywhere and anytime.
Public television works hard to engage young learners and build the skills needed for a jump-start on life. We need our youngest to be curious, resilient and empathetic, and prepared for the jobs of the future.
Public, noncommercial broadcasting is also giving kids social-emotional skills like persistence and self-control that are fundamental to success in school, not to mention in the military, the institution where I spent most of my career.
In our society, I see public media as a lever. It pushes people by elevating them and their sights. It brings them into more thinking and understanding, and it brings us together. The federal appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — about $445 million annually — supports more than a thousand television and radio stations at a cost of about $1.35 per citizen. President Trump has proposed scrapping the corporation.
Trust among Americans and for many of our institutions is at its lowest levels in generations, and stereotyping and prejudice have become substitutes for knowing and understanding one another as individuals.
How Americans restore trust may be an existential question for our country, then, but it’s ultimately a practical one, and our elected officials should advance ideas not with lamentations but with practical measures.
I’ve seen articles that say PBS and its member stations are ranked first in public trust among nationally known institutions. Why then would we degrade or destroy an institution that binds us together?
We need public media that acts as our largest classroom. We need broadcasting that treats us as citizens, not simply as consumers. We need a strong civil society where the connection between different people and groups is firm and vibrant, not brittle and divided. We need to defend against weaknesses within and enemies without, using the tools of civil society and hard power. We don’t have to pick one over the other.
Stanley McChrystal, a retired Army general, is the founder of the McChrystal Group, a consulting firm.