Public Broadcasting Faces Harsh Congressional Challenges
This week, the House Appropriations Committee will consider budget cuts that include proposals to "zero out" funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Industry newspaper Current reports that there are now six bills proposing partial or total defunding of public broadcasting.
In response, public broadcasters and their advocates have begun mounting various defenses. These campaigns and articles are notable not just as a record of a breaking political battle, but as a snapshot of current claims for public media's relevance in our oversaturated, polarized and increasingly participatory public dialogue. We've long argued here at CSM that public media 2.0 should primarily serve to convene publics around issues. What are others saying? Here's a roundup from the past several days; I'll continue to report here weekly as the fight intensifies:
- Statements from the major industry players: All of the familiar policy arguments for public broadcasting are showcased in this compilation of statements by CPB, PBS, the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), and NPR, but it's always instructional to see who is emphasizing what. In this round: CPB is stressing public media's role as a model public-private partnership and a local job-creator; PBS, arts and education; APTS, localism and content diversity, and NPR, free and trustworthy news.
- Campaigns from 170 Million Americans (and friends?): National and local public broadcasting organizations are working together on a nationwide campaign to inform and mobilize public media fans about proposed cuts. From outside of the sector, they're being joined by campaigns from media reform groups such as Free Press as well as advocacy organizations such as MoveOn.org and Credo. Behind the scenes, some worry that such support from liberal organizers will only redouble criticism that public broadcasting leans to the left.
- Ira weighs in: Ira Glass, the founder and host of public radio hit, This American Life, argues that the campaign language from the major players is too milquetoast. "Weirdly, my betters in the public broadcasting community have decided they’re not even going to argue" about accusations of bias from Republicans. Glass told The Boston Globe. “Instead they have this kind of vanilla ad campaign based on the idea that 170 million Americans watch public TV or listen to public radio, and these Americans are from all walks of life and are conservatives and liberals...I feel like, [Republicans] want to have a discussion about the content we make, let’s have that discussion. We have nothing to be afraid of."
- Public media's future: On public radio call-in show HearSay with Cathy Lewis, I joined innovators Andy Carvin of NPR, Joaquin Alvarado of American Public Media and Gene Grant of New Mexico station KNME to discuss how new platforms and practices are involving members of the public directly in informing, producing and sharing public media content, and how this might reshape assumptions about the sector.
- Urgency and verve: On his personal blog, Rob Bole of the CPB argues that public media must figure out new ways to use digital tools to "solve problems worth solving." He cites an interview with Michael Edson, the Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution, in which Edson charges "public institutions to bring public solutions that have URGENCY and VERVE. Where should we establish our public service media online boldness? What are the great challenges we could be addressing in the lives of our users that have show us so much trust, loyalty and enthusiasm?"
- The station perspective: In The Washington Post, New York Public Radio CEO Laura Walker and Kohanic Broadcast Corporation CEO Jaclyn Sallee approach the question from the local angle, noting that, in a moment of contraction for local commercial coverage, public broadcasters are a key source of news to millions. "For stations in rural or economically hard-hit areas that aren't able to attract as much other support, CPB funding is their lifeblood," they write, adding that "At its core, public broadcasting belongs to the American people; it stands as a testament to our generosity and curiosity. In the midst of cynicism, public media organizations firmly believe that learning is a lifelong and joyful pursuit."
- Filling the trust gap: Also at The Post, blogger Ezra Klein makes the pitch for public media as a public good that the market can't provide. "News isn't like flowers or sausages," he writes. "It's more like universities and research, which are publicly supported without much controversy because they're seen as offering wide benefits that cannot be captured in profit."
- Let's get real: Meanwhile, an article in the February issue of Reason dismisses all of this as tired political theater. "These standoffs never end with public broadcasting getting defunded," writes Managing Editor Jesse Walker. But what if public broadcasters responded by walking away from federal subsidy and the associated battles? He explores propositions and consequences for fully commercializing and decommercializing public media, as well as public broadcasters becoming fully reliant on foundation money.
Claims for public media's value will be explored further at an event tomorrow at NYU, Public Media and Political Influence: Lessons for the Future of Journalism from Around the World. Check back next week for a report, and highlights from this week's debate from around the Web.
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