Representative Earl Blumenauer stood before a microphone outside the Capitol building in February to make a passionate plea for continued federal funding of public broadcasting. The Oregon Democrat argued that news, specifically community news, is “not commercially viable. The public needs to be there.”
But in making his case, the bow-tied Congressman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a life-sized, fuzzy-suited Arthur, the aardvark star of the popular pbs kids’ show. Stuffed plushies of Big Bird and Grover, the Sesame Street Muppets, perched on his podium.
And therein lies a conundrum: The public interest community wants public media to rescue serious journalism. But in public television, at least, Big Bird is the big draw.
Focused on self-preservation as they are, burdened with high overhead and declining income, the nation’s 356 public television stations have done precious little to fill a news gap in an era when newspapers are struggling for survival and commercial broadcasters increasingly embrace polarized opinion programming. Public television players are instead clamoring for safe programming that doesn’t alienate core viewers. The biggest programming news coming out of the PBS annual meeting in May was a new Antiques Roadshow spin-off.
Public media today is held up as the potential savior of serious journalism, the place with the potential to tackle the tough topics—complicated revolutions in Arab lands and zoning board shenanigans alike—that an informed citizenry needs to function. Bill Kling, the just-retired president and chief executive of American Public Media, predicts public broadcasting will be “the last journalism standing.”
Public radio has certainly taken up the cause. NPR has created an investigative unit, showcased foreign coverage, and launched multiple projects to bolster local station news reporting, which many stations have embraced. But public television?
With a few notable exceptions, it seems oddly absent from the fevered conversation about innovation and radical rethinking of the possibilities of journalism. The system certainly has the capacity to try some new and different approaches to delivering news, with nearly two stations for every population market except the smallest ones.
But only a few stations are experimenting with news. Others have yet to attract solid funding for their efforts and many of the rest aren’t interested in pursuing more news. The system overall has done little to address a Byzantine structure that can discourage local newsgathering. Nor has it helped forge a way for stations to work together on a coordinated strategy.
On the national front, PBS has two solid news offerings—PBS NewsHour and Frontline—but not much else. David Fanning, Frontline’s executive producer and founder, says that by not making journalism an urgent priority, public television is missing an opportunity. “I think this is about defining ourselves in the landscape,” he says. “Even if journalism on air is not always going to get you the highest audiences, it’s going to get you attention and it’s going to make you more relevant.”
Despite their high hopes for so much more, viewers who are counting on public television to fill the gap for serious news on a large scale are bound to be disappointed. Unless significant reforms are made, public television won’t be making everything A-okay for the news business.
News Is a Tough Sell
News, be it local, national, or international, has been a tough sell ever since PBS was founded in 1970. A preference for safe, non-controversial programming like Sesame Street is part of its DNA, says Lawrence Grossman, PBS president from 1976 to 1984.
One of Grossman’s first bold moves at PBS was to offer a new half-hour national news program, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, to stations for free for six months. Station managers were outraged, insisting that, he remembers them saying, “Washington” shouldn’t dictate programming, and that “localism will determine our own curriculum.”
The managers’ protestations were not to protect locally produced news shows, Grossman explains. “No one does local news programming,” he says, calling it the “great contradiction” of public television. Rather, the stations were fighting to reserve the right to pick whatever programs they chose, and to air them when they pleased. If they were locked into a specific half-hour of MacNeil/Lehrer, they feared a small piece of their prized independence would be lost.
Despite the initial controversy, MacNeil/Lehrer’s brand of intellectually rigorous newsgathering was a hit with viewers. In 1983, pbs wanted to expand the newscast to an hour. It was another fight, says Linda Winslow, the NewsHour’s current executive producer.
“A number of stations traditionally felt they were just not convinced that news and public affairs was a big part of the mission of public broadcasting,” she says. Stations saw their role as providing an alternative to the commercial networks and questioned why they should cover the same events as ABC, NBC, and CBS.