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It must be spring, because Republicans are frolicking through their annual ritual of trying to abolish funding for public broadcasting – led this time by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, playing the role of Oscar the Grouch.

What a silly exercise. Pulling the plug on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting won’t save that much money: $420 million out of a total $3.83 trillion federal budget. And it won’t accomplish the GOP’s goal of shutting down NPR.

What Republicans don’t seem to understand is that funds to CPB are not passed directly on to NPR or PBS; instead, they are given to local stations, which can then choose to use, or not use, their funding to buy programs from NPR and PBS. In real life, NPR gets only 1 percent to 3 percent of its budget, indirectly, from CPB.

NPR and PBS will survive without federal funding. So will public broadcasting stations in bigger markets, with a large listener/contributor base. The real victims will be local stations in smaller, mainly rural, markets, without such a substantial membership base, which depend on help from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – and without which they’ll simply have to close their doors.

If Republicans were really serious about tackling the deficit, they’d forget about pet peeves like NPR and go after some of the really big items in the budget – like the massive waste in the Pentagon, excess federal properties, overlapping and duplicative federal agencies and America’s anachronistic nuclear weapons program.

Besides – and I say this as a direct competitor to NPR on morning radio – the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, through both PBS and NPR, provides excellent programming Americans can’t find anywhere else. Yes, there’s strong broadcasting from the left on MSNBC and progressive radio stations. There are plenty of voices from the right on Fox News and right-wing talk radio. But in the midst of that political cacophony it’s good to have the available option of calmer, more balanced reporting, right down the middle – which is what NPR and PBS provide.

Nobody covers the Supreme Court better than Nina Totenberg. Nobody does a better interview than Robert Siegel. No program gets more laughs on radio than “Car Talk.” And on PBS, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff are first-class news anchors. Then there’s “Frontline,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “American Experience,” Tavis Smiley, and, of course, “Sesame Street.”

Without them, we would be a poorer, less informed nation – which even many conservatives admit. In fact, when it comes to NPR, John Boehner and Eric Cantor – who brag about “listening to the American people” – don’t seem to be listening to their fellow conservatives.

“I think NPR tries harder to be fair than just about any other media source,” conservative talk show host Michael Medved told Media Matters. “It doesn’t mean they succeed. They do give evidence of trying.” Former Newt Gingrich press secretary Tony Blankley adds that NPR has always given him plenty of access and treated him fairly. Even several tea-party activists say they received better coverage from NPR than the mainstream media. “I think they do a good job. They are conscientious,” volunteers conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds.

But New York Times reporter David Brooks makes a much more important argument. The value of public broadcasting, he said on “The Chris Matthews Show,” is in helping to create a “common culture” – which, he notes, is essential “if we’re going to assimilate people, if we’re going to be one nation.” Where most commercial programming is designed to drive us apart, public broadcasting brings us together and celebrates our common values. Much like the Smithsonian does. Getting rid of it might be “penny wise,” but it would also be “pound foolish.”

Again, in the end, this debate is more about scoring a political point than saving money. It costs every man, woman and child about $1.35 a year for public broadcasting. Even in this day of severe budget crises, I think Big Bird is worth it.

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