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.
As journalists, Steve, our profession’s credibility with the public is, shall we say, limited. Fortunately, the case for a stronger public media need not depend on the opinions of journalists. In addition to civic information, civil debate, and investigations into governmental and corporate performance, a strong public media is becoming essential because technology is rapidly transforming the basic role of media within society and households.
Through television, Sesame Street educated a generation of American preschoolers. Through the web and mobile devices, Americans of the future will not just educate their toddlers, they will likely retrain themselves for the workplace; manage their health online; and join scores of virtual communities.
As Bill Kling and others have argued, in the coming world of infinite channels, breathtaking challenges to privacy, and politics that threaten to be as fractured as the media, the country requires a reliable, public-minded virtual square to sort fact from fiction and honest debate from cynically funded manipulation.
That is not a matter of left versus right, or of competition between political parties; it concerns the health of civil society. A campaign to reform and revitalize public media waged to advance such a vision will have many constituents: rural states left out of the urban media cacophony; independent voters and engaged citizens searching for reason and cross-checked facts, as well as in-depth reporting that will hold power to account; diverse community and ethnic groups seeking more inclusive sources of information; educators and public health institutions seeking reliable channels of public-minded reporting about subjects too often neglected; and politicians of all ideological stripes whose careers are unreasonably endangered by undisciplined, self-interested electronic publishers.
That is perhaps much more ambition and abstraction than a civil servant laboring in a cramped Washington cubicle should have to take on board, Steve, but you’ve always been one to think big. I’m confident that your report will be intelligent, thorough, balanced, and nuanced. I hope it will also provide the most comprehensive blueprint yet for principled but pragmatic reform of our broken media policy regime. “Maybe we’re at a 1967 moment, again,” Ernest Wilson, the chairman of CPB, likes to say. He is referring to the arrival of the political coalition that gave formal birth to public broadcasting.
He may be right, but only if we connect a unifying reform vision to the broadest possible supporting coalitions. Your work can get us started.
My best regards,
The Other Steve