Now Cough

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Empire Falls

Strings Attached

Public broadcasting has an appropriate (and to some maddening) aversion to money influencing content. Unlike the filthy, stupid and suspect commercial world of TV and radio, public broadcasting is pure.

In your dreams.

First, programs that exhibit courage and insight, NOW and Fresh Air are lambasted by the right and even their largest public funder, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB):

Important as public comment is, it is only one source of information available to us, and we do not rely on it exclusively. We are also mindful of the views of broadcasting and journalism professionals, public officials, commentators, activists, artists and critics, among others. These opinions may be expressed in the public press, in private conversations with CPB board members and other officials, or even in congressional hearings. We value them all, because each helps us build a fuller picture of the diversity of American opinion and the needs of the public we seek to serve.

We define "press" broadly to include not only mainstream print and broadcast entities, but also the many issue-oriented Web sites that closely follow news coverage and analysis. During the last year, a number of issues involving public broadcasting attracted attention in the press. NPR coverage of Israel sparked criticism, as well as organized protests in major cities. At PBS, Bill Moyers and his dual role as reporter and commentator provoked some unfavorable reaction, including particular attention from Fox host Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly figured in another controversy when he walked out of an interview with NPR's Terry Gross; NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, later agreed with O'Reilly's charge that the interview was unfair. Finally, a number of news stories explored the issue of perceived bias or lack of objectivity, not only in public broadcasting but in the media as a whole.

Members of Congress also expressed opinions about public broadcasting's objectivity and balance. At two hearings during 2003 – one before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, and the other before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation – some members expressed discomfort with perceived bias in the presentation of news and public issues, including NPR's war coverage and NOW with Bill Moyers, while other valued the thought-provoking presentation of different points of views. CPB Board Chair Kenneth Y. Tomlinson also commented publicly on the need to ensure that public television offers balance in its public affairs programming.

The only ones charging bias and imbalance are members of the political right. So, PBS now has on the terrible, didactic program The Journal Editorial Report (whose title I love, because it mixes the word 'editorial,' opinion -- in this case conservative opinion -- with the word 'report,' which makes this sound like a balanced news program. It isn't.)

What is more, the chairman of CPB--Kenneth Tomlinson (who still helps run a new American inspired (think VOA-like) TV channel for Arabic peaking nations--is conservative as well. And, he secretly had two consultants weigh viewer and listener opinion about bias and balance regarding PBS and NPR shows. He didn't tell the programs or PBS or NPR he was doing this. Apparently even the CPB board was in the dark according to The New York Times. In any case, the consultants found NO merit to the allegations or bias and imbalance (read the report here A Report to Congress on Steps Taken by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Response to Section 19 of the Public Telecommunications Act of 1992 for the period January 1, 2003 to December 31, 2003)

An excerpt from the site Center for Digital Democracy:

Conducted between June 29-July 2003 and surveying 1,008 adults, the National Public Opinion Survey #2 showed that public broadcasting had an 80 percent “Favorable” rating; only 10 percent of those polled had an “Unfavorable” opinion of PBS and public radio. PBS "News & Information 'consumers'” were highly supportive of such programs as the "Newshour," "Frontline," "Morning Edition," and "All Things Considered."

More than half of those surveyed believed that PBS news and information programming was more “trustworthy” than news shows on the commercial networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN (while between 6 and 15 percent found PBS programming less trustworthy). Similarly, more than half of those surveyed believed that PBS provided more "in-depth" news and information programming than the networks (compared to between 17 and 24 percent who thought such programming was less in-depth). Only about 8 percent thought that PBS’s Iraq war coverage was “slanted.” More than a quarter of those surveyed said the reporting was “fair and balanced” (while 63 percent had “no opinion” at all). NPR received similar results. Few respondents believed that PBS and NPR “coverage of the Bush Administration” was “slanted” (a result that no doubt disappointed those at CPB who had formulated the question).

Finally, more than half (55 percent) said that PBS programming was “fair and balanced," with strong support for its “high quality programming” and as “a valuable cultural resource.” NPR received an even higher approval rating for its programming, including perceptions that it is “fair and balanced” (79 percent of respondents).

Regardless, CPB has hired two 'ombudsmen' to oversee and opine about how balanced, accurate and fair NPR, PBS and other CPB-funded programs are. Both tend to have a conservative bent and one used to work with Tomlinson at Reader's Digest.

My advice:

  • Be suspect of all funders. Especially now with these developments at CPB.

  • Encourage independent media. The money needs to be separate from the content, whether the money if from business, foundations, universities or government.

  • Pledge to public broadcasting programs and stations that reflect your values

  • Push for the phase out of government support of public broadcasting. This is my sole opinion, but in this day and age there are simply too many strings attached.

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