Call it tough love. This column frequently critiques the practice and performance of U.S. public broadcasting. And with good reason. Neither NPR nor PBS comes close to realizing its potential to broadcast in the public interest. All too often, U.S. public media act as “stenographers to power” rather than adhere to the principles of good journalism: independence, inquiry and verification.
Public broadcasting’s recent coverage of democratic uprisings in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere is a case in point. On the one hand, public media repeats and amplifies the pronouncements of administration and state department officials with little if any interrogation of their specious claims to support pro-democracy activists. What’s more, both NPR and PBS did their share of stoking anti-Islamic attitudes and ignoring the history of American imperialism in the Arab world.
On the other hand, when the protests are closer to home -- in Wisconsin, for example, where public sector employees are rallying to stave off Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s union busting -- public broadcasting’s enthusiasm for popular uprisings evaporates. Coming to the story late, NPR’s news magazines have begun to devote some airtime to the protests. However, last Thursday, Morning Edition framed the worker revolt as a “business story” -- without a hint of irony!
"Notwithstanding public broadcasting’s failures and shortcomings, both NPR and PBS deserve our support."
Furthermore, both NPR and PBS are guilty of uncritically repeating the pronouncements of investment bankers and politicians who are eager to shift the blame for the economic meltdown from the corporate fat cats and complicit federal regulators onto hardworking public sector employees. For millions of Americans who are unemployed, who cannot afford decent health care or whose homes have been foreclosed, second-rate reporting like this only adds insult to injury. In short, U.S. public broadcasting’s adherence to Washington-Wall Street consensus can be maddening.
Notwithstanding public broadcasting’s failures and shortcomings, both NPR and PBS deserve our support. Now more than ever. In their fervor to slash federal spending, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is considering a continuing resolution to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) -- the non-profit corporation that funds U.S. public radio and television.
The good news is that public media advocates have rallied to support this valuable, if flawed, institution. According to a press release issued by the non-partisan media reform group Free Press, over 1 million people have signed a petition that opposes plans to eliminate CPB.
For those who haven’t signed the petition, here are five reasons to support public media.
1. Public affairs and investigative journalism
With the exception of CBS’s long-running 60 Minutes, these days corporate media’s idea of investigative journalism begins and ends with sting operations like Dateline: To Catch a Predator. Cheap to produce and well-suited for endless cross-promotions, these “investigative reports” may be good for the bottom line, but they sure don’t serve the public interest.
"Despite PBS’s reluctance to find suitable replacements for Now and Bill Moyers Journal, public television still has some 'street cred' when it comes to public affairs and investigative journalism."
Despite PBS’s reluctance to find suitable replacements for Now and Bill Moyers Journal, public television still has some “street cred” when it comes to public affairs and investigative journalism. For instance, PBS’s Frontline and Wide Angle have a solid track record of in-depth reporting.
On public radio, The Diane Rhem Show routinely features news analysis of domestic and foreign policy. While both of these programs suffer from much the same “inside the Beltway”-bias as the Sunday morning talk shows, they do make an effort to take up significant issues that don’t get much traction in the corporate media.
2. International reporting
Unlike their counterparts in broadcast radio and television and cable’s rolling news channels -- whose stock in trade is the jet-setting, star reporter parachuting in and out of war zones, disaster areas and other international hot spots -- NPR has correspondents across the globe. Moreover, both PBS and NPR make extensive use of stringers -- often affiliated with well-respected news organizations like the BBC -- to supplement their international reporting.
While these reports rarely challenge the world view of U.S. foreign policy elites, public radio’s commitment to having reporters’ “boots on the ground” is essential for understanding the dynamics of international relations in the 21st century.
3. Syndicated programming
Nationally syndicated programming is the cornerstone of U.S. public broadcasting. These programs are essential for attracting audiences to local public stations and supplementing locally produced programming on public radio and television.
On PBS, diverse offerings such as Masterpiece, Antiques Road Show, Nova and Great Performances are real treasures. NPR has likewise made high-caliber, locally produced programs such as This American Life (WBEZ -- Chicago), Fresh Air (WHYY -- Philadelphia) and Car Talk (WBUR -- Boston) available to national audiences for years.
"Unlike their counterparts in broadcast radio and television and cable’s rolling news channels ... NPR has correspondents across the globe."
Last, but not least, thanks to local public radio and television stations across the country, Pacifica Radio’s award-winning daily newscast, Democracy Now!, has pioneered “the largest public media collaboration” in American broadcasting.
4. Innovative and independent media
By their nature, corporate media tend to be risk averse and rarely experiment with innovative program form and content. Public media tends to be a bit more welcoming of innovative and independent production. On PBS Independent Lens and POV are indispensible outlets for experimental and alternative approaches to television form and content.
NPR likewise takes a few chances by distributing locally produced programs that challenge listeners’ sensibilities and expectations. Three personal favorites come to mind. From WNYC, Radio Lab is just that: a laboratory for innovative and experimental approaches news, information and entertainment programming.
Then there’s Harry Shearer’s long-running Le Show. Featuring news, music, commentary and first-rate political humor, Le Show -- originating from “the home of the homeless” in Santa Monica, California -- feeds your head and tickles your funny bone.
Finally, there’s Story Corps, David Isay’s oral history project that documents and preserves the American experience with simple elegance.
5. Cultural and educational programming
Educational television in the United States is synonymous with PBS. From Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Zoom! to Sesame Street and The Electric Company public television has made learning fun for generations of young Americans.
"Finally, both NPR and PBS excel at producing and distributing outstanding cultural fare."
Finally, both NPR and PBS excel at producing and distributing outstanding cultural fare, from Austin City Limits and Soundstage on public television, to Mountain Stage, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz and The World Café on public radio. And that’s the short list.
As Free Press’ campaign manager, Timothy Karr, notes, the Republican attack on CPB “is clearly political, not budgetary.” In fact, a great many of the shortcomings associated with U.S. public broadcasting can be traced to conservative assaults on the institution dating back to the Nixon administration. Nevertheless, our media landscape would be greatly diminished without NPR and PBS.
All things considered, we’ve got to stand up for public broadcasting.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.