The system should also be organized to reinforce the existing firewall between government funding and journalism. Such firewalls are a daunting challenge, but they can be managed. Newspaper publishers, in their day, insulated their newsrooms from pressure from advertisers, for the most part; university presidents insulate their faculty from pressure from donors, for the most part. When they fail they are often exposed (typically by journalists) and held accountable. Conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts are inherent to professional activity in a free-market economy; law, medicine, accounting, and science all struggle with the problem. There is, in any event, no inherent moral difference between corporate advertising dollars and government dollars; both flow from institutions whose power over citizens journalists should be seeking to describe and challenge.
I’ve even heard that you, Steve, have thought aloud with colleagues about a rule requiring that no recipient of expanded government funding for public media could receive such funds if the revenue would amount to more than 15 percent of the recipient’s total budget. That is a terrific idea, assuming some scheme for grandfathering CPB-funded stations can be put together. In their heyday, newspaper publishers and television networks retained independence in part because revenue sources were diverse and no one category created existential risk.
Funds reallocated to CPB should also be tied to reforms designed to open up the public media system to make it more diverse and more inclusive. Open platforms, open technology, and open access should be guiding aspirations, too. If new funds are passed through CPB, Congress should insist on the creation of at least one new funding stream accessible by outsiders to the legacy PBS and public radio system. The Waldman Fifteen Percent Rule, as we will henceforth think of it, could be particularly helpful in that project.
PBS is a better-than-average but flawed government institution with some outstanding flagship properties, including Frontline and PBS NewsHour in the journalism space. There are opportunities to use CPB reforms to improve it, although we shouldn’t raise our expectations too high. Public radio, on the other hand, which is independently chartered and not beholden to Congress or any other government body, has proven itself as the indispensable center of professional journalism and public affairs programming in the era of shrinking newspapers. Some specific effort should therefore be undertaken to bolster NPR and its member stations, as well as NPR’s quasi-rival, American Public Media.
NPR receives less than 2 percent of its annual budget from the CPB or other federal grantmakers. Even when indirect program fees flowing to NPR from member stations are considered, less than 10 percent of CPB’s funds flow through to the country’s dominant public radio network. The need to raise funds from diverse sources, including listeners, strengthens the NPR system’s journalism and other content by forcing it to account for audience preferences and to avoid bias. Even so, more funding routed through CPB to the public radio system would strengthen the country’s democracy, particularly if the new funds were tied to incentives to expand the radio system’s web publishing and local reporting.
The producers and anchors on public radio should aspire to be the conveners of a reliable, fact-based, calm, inclusive, media space for nonpartisan reporting and debate about the issues that matter, without sensation or the distorting pursuit of commercial reward. Still, like all centrist, successful cultural institutions, public radio will have to challenge its own complacency and raise the level of its diversity. Saturday Night Live, we can hope, will continue to help to keep its producers honest. The Alec Baldwin “Schweddy Balls” send-ups of NPR are funny and dead-on. I’ve been impressed by Vivian Schiller’s leadership of NPR, but I thought the decision to fire commentator Juan Williams over the comments he made on Fox News was mistaken. Fox thrives on demagogic identity politics, meanwhile, so it is hardly surprising that it has seized on the firing to stir up Republican resistance to public media.
There is no doubt that conservatives see NPR as hobbled by liberal bias. The network should be accountable to all of its legitimate constituents—to function as a public square, it must be open and fair to all comers. The BBC provides an instructive example: listening to conservative criticism, its managers concluded that their problem was not bias in the way they reported, but an unconscious bias in the subjects they chose. Issues of concern to conservatives, such as immigration and business, were disproportionately neglected. A course correction broadened the BBC’s base of support.