Thursday, March 17, 2011

Public broadcasting can learn something from its enemies -- how to fight back

Programming readily available in the existing market?
By Barry Johnson

Sometimes your opponents in a debate do you a big favor: They clear the brush for you and open a line of creative inquiry that leads you to a beneficial course of action.  I think that's what House Republicans are doing for public broadcasting right now, if public broadcasting will just listen.

First, the facts. Today the US House of Representatives will vote on a measure that would prohibit National Public Radio and its affiliates (such as Oregon Public Broadcasting) from using federal money to produce programming or buy programs from other member stations. NPR and the stations could continue to use federal money that comes to them from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to cover administrative costs. The House has already voted to cut funding to the Corporation, and the measure today is essentially revenue neutral; it isn't about the federal deficit.

UPDATE: The House voted for the measure, 228-192.

For most of the bigger stations in the network, the measure isn't a big deal financially. They receive money from many sources and simple accounting manipulations can ensure their compliance with the measure. Smaller stations, the ones that receive the bulk of their funding from the federal government,  are the ones that will have problems, according to most of the analysis I've read. These happen to be in the states and districts that are the most Republican and whose representatives are most inclined to vote for the measure.

UPDATE 2: Steve Bass, the president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, explains why it IS a big deal, financially:  
"The bill debated yesterday had very broad impacts that would have serious implications for OPB. The bill, if enacted, would prohibit stations from acquiring any content from any source whatsoever if federal funds are involved. It's not just about the use of federal funds to purchase programming from NPR.

That would undercut our new environmental "local journalism center" that CPB has funded and likely have an impact on our regional reporting which is done in cooperation with other public broadcasting stations."
I don't think that is ironic. It's very practical. Basically, those representatives have decided that NPR programs (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air) don't help them politically and aren't aligned with them ideologically, so eliminating them makes good sense from where they sit.
The argument -- well, it's a statement really, not a full argument -- put forward by the sponsor of the measure, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., isn't explicitly ideological. Here's his statement:
"This is an exciting and significant step forward in the ongoing effort to protect taxpayer dollars from supporting programs that are fully capable of standing on their own. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for something that is widely available in the private market. I wish only the best for NPR. Like many Americans, I enjoy much of their programming. I believe that they can survive, even thrive, in the free market without the crutch of government subsidies."
But that's just for public consumption, I fear. Here's what Lamborn, whose campaign against public broadcasting is long-standing,  said in a letter to his own supporters back in October.
You may have heard about the recent firing of NPR News Analyst Juan Williams and the $1.8 million donation by liberal activist George Soros to hire 100 NPR reporters. These two actions make it clear that public broadcasting is a friend and protector of liberal issues and political correctness, at the expense of free speech and balanced news reporting.
It is time for Congress to prioritize its spending to our nation’s most pressing needs. With the national debt over $13 trillion dollars, the government cannot continue to fund non-essential services that cater to the priorities of the liberal media elite.
Now there's the red meat -- the "liberal media elite," "liberal issues" and, gasp, "political correctness." Oh, and "balanced news reporting," but more on that later.

Lamborn has given public broadcasting a description of itself. Here's the first part: NPR programming is "widely available in the private market."  Even without thinking about it for long, that's just false. No programming in the commercial sector is remotely like the Big Three on NPR (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air), let alone the specialty shows (Car Talk, State of the Nation, Radiolab). In fact, no one even tries to do programs such as these. The commercial radio business, in case you've confined your listening to NPR stations, is in big trouble. No one is investing in public affairs programming to the extent NPR does. The only place on your radio dial, right now, to get good information on the situation in Japan, for example, is public radio (NPR and others). No one else is doing cultural reporting. No one else really has staked itself to the virtues of traditional news gathering and reporting. That's really what the "liberal" that Lamborn disparages means -- free, open, rigorous inquiry the results of which can be tested and confirmed or rejected or improved.

Ideologues hate that sort of "liberalism" because sometimes it overturns their positions. No, Rep. Lamborn, cutting taxes will not fix the deficit. No, Rep. Lamborn, cutting the deficit won't fix the economy. Of course, I think Rep. Lamborn knows this, but his ideological concerns are broader than these little things. I'm not even going to bring up Darwin. Oops.

Anyway, NPR's best course of action is to debate this "widely available" notion as vigorously as it can. It should be easy: "Dear Cincinnati (your city here), Here's what was on your public radio station this morning. Here's what was available on the other stations at the same time. These aren't remotely the same, and whether or not you listen to us, we want to argue that the values that gird our programming should be represented in the spectrum of radio available to you. Here's what they are. Thanks for your attention."

NPR is different now. But what if it had didn't have a subsidy -- of any kind. (I'm betting that Lamborn would like to remove its tax exempt status, though I haven't found direct evidence of that.) Then it would have to migrate toward the programming models of commercial stations. In which case Lamborn's description would be right! Yes, Lamborn is trying to make his erroneous description correct! You have to hand it to the guy.

With that brush cleared, public stations can then look more clearly at themselves, at what differentiates them from commercial radio (and television for that matter). Instead of blurring that difference with shows that really do have "commercial" possibilities, maybe they should emphasize the difference. All I mean by that is ever more clearly focused, central, aggressive reporting from its news programs, formats that allow ever better discussions about our problems and concerns (local to international), attention to the elements and direction of our culture (again, local to international), an emphasis on creative approaches to the medium and how it intersects with the Internet.

NPR and all other public stations should feel free to argue their own case: That the free and rigorous inquiry I talked about is crucial to making our lives together here better. And that efforts to compromise that inquiry injure us by hurting our ability to bring our best thinking and our attention to bear on our problems. Lamborn and his colleagues aren't addressing the budget deficit, they are trying to make sure that we don't have the benefit of that inquiry in our lives, again because it overturns their ideologies (primarily involving the apotheosis of the Free Market), not to mention hurt supporters whose activities they don't want scrutinized. The Republican defense of the nuclear power industry in the wake of the Japanese reactor breaches comes immediately to mind.

But NPR doesn't have to get into all that. It just has to tell us what it stands for -- free, open, rigorous,  rational reporting. And then it has to make sure that it's doing exactly that. No compromises. No looking over its shoulder at the Lamborns of the world. The "balanced" reporting that Lamborn talks about? Balanced reporting is reporting that has been tested. It doesn't mean giving the Flat Earth Society its say every time you say the earth is spinning. And it's reporting that attempts to correct itself when it's wrong, re-frame itself when a better explanation comes along and seeks ever better ways to connect to various audiences.

My own criticisms of public radio occur when its inquiry falls short, when it isn't aggressive enough, when it doesn't correct itself, when it drifts to the periphery, when it fails to account for itself and when it fails to defend itself against the enemies of free inquiry, among whom I count Rep. Lamborn.  And what I'm suggesting is that public broadcasting take his challenge to heart, to make itself truly different from market radio/television/internet -- to raise its critical standards and to push its reporting harder and further than ever.

Because yes, sometimes our critics and even our enemies, show us the right way.


Steve Bass said...

Barry -- one point in your post I would like to clarify. The bill debated yesterday had very broad impacts that would have serious implications for OPB. The bill, if enacted, would prohibit stations from acquiring any content from any source whatsoever if federal funds are involved. It's not just about the use of federal funds to purchase programming from NPR.

That would undercut our new environmental "local journalism center" that CPB has funded and likely have an impact on our regional reporting which is done in cooperation with other public broadcasting stations.

Thought it worth clarifying this and thanks for the post.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, Steve. I'll move your comment to the body of the story.

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