PBS: Where’s the Beef?
Elizabeth Jensen’s story “Big Bird to the Rescue?” (CJR, July/August) in your cover package about the lack of local news on public television was well timed. Just as it was published, New Jersey Network News, what may have been the last fully field-produced local nightly news program in public television, aired its final broadcast after forty years.
Usually such efforts don’t last nearly as long. Over the past forty years, there have been several noble efforts to produce high-quality local news programs on public television, from KQED’s Newsroom to WNET’s The 51st State to WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News. But the programs were killed off, usually due to the management culture of local public television, a culture I observed when I was a reporter for several public radio and television stations in the 1970s and 1980s. In this culture field-produced local news is seen as a drain on station managers’ ambitions for national production glory.
And that culture can induce some remarkable acts of greed. At one station I worked at, during an early-morning pledge drive, the station told young children that if mom and dad didn’t send money, they might have to take away Sesame Street. (That’s not an urban legend—I saw them do it. Twice.)
So what would happen across America if tomorrow almost all the local public television stations disappeared and only the transmitters were left operating? Nothing. It would be weeks, perhaps months—roughly around the time of the next pledge drive—before most “viewers like you” even noticed.
The typical local station is just a middleman. It takes the wholesale product—programs produced under the auspices of a few very large stations and PBS—and then “retails” it to viewers. But the “markup” is enormous: the cost of local personnel, studios, and equipment that produce almost nothing local aside from a weekly talking-head program perhaps and a special every six months about “the local arts scene.”
A far wiser use of scarce funds would be to eliminate the middleman—shut down almost all local public television stations and use the money saved for a strong national public television service and to support local public radio and affiliated websites where there is enormous potential for real public service at relatively low cost.
Having spent over a decade as a senior officer at NPR observing the cultures of public radio and public television, I believe the articles on public television in the July/August CJR miss a critical point. Few people realize that PBS is forbidden by its member stations from itself producing any broadcast programming. All broadcast content which it distributes must originate at, or be sponsored, by a member station. This rule selfishly protects the kingdoms of the local stations, ignores the interests of the public, and prohibits the aggregation at the national level of resources which could fund meaningful national news programming. Instead, each major producing public television station duplicates the infrastructure of the others, a profoundly inefficient way of doing business.
Because of this scandalous inefficiency, public television has only three significant national news programs. One is a solid but narrowly investigative program (Frontline, out of WGBH in Boston), another is a weak business news program (The Nightly Business Report, out of WPBT in Miami), and the PBS News-Hour (produced by a for-profit entity and sponsored by WETA in Washington) which has little real news, mostly relying for content on talking heads analyzing news reported by others. Thus, across all of public television, there is a deplorable lack of reportage.
Such a pitiful contribution by a public service broadcasting sector, whose budget is at least five times that of all of public radio, just can’t be justified. By contrast NPR and other national program producers and distributors provide public-radio listeners with a rich diet of hard news, breaking news, international news, news analysis, cultural news, as well as investigatory news. So by any standard, on the news front, public television gets a failing grade.
The relationship of PBS and its stations must change before public television can effectively serve the public’s interest in providing the best news programming. Public television stations must let PBS have the resources to produce top-notch news programming, and then command that it do so. This in turn will free them to produce news programming where it is sorely needed—for their local communities.
Let public television’s national component—PBS—focus on national service.
News for the Neighborhood
In his article “News for the World” (CJR, July/August), Lee Bollinger offers an interesting proposal—to create an American World (News) Service to absorb and supersede npr, pbs, and the Voice of America. In theoretical terms, it has much to recommend it. We are pitifully far behind quite a few countries in such offerings.
World news in the San Francisco Bay Area provides a slightly different profile from that he gives. In my Silicon Valley neighborhood, there is a significant reluctance to subscribe to cable (poor reception in some locales). An incidental benefit is that broader news and foreign-language offerings are available on digital TV, which has increased the number of public channels from three to ten over the past two years.
KCSM (San Mateo) holds the strongest hand for (non-US) world services. In addition to the BBC (recently forced to contract its world service) and PBS, its evening offerings also include Deutsche Welle (the go-to place for the Euro crisis), NHK World News (riveting coverage of the Sendai earthquake and its aftermath; excellent pan-Asian review on Thursdays), Al Jazeera (on-the-spot coverage of the Arab Spring), and Russia Today (nothing topical ofnote) on weekdays. A local commercial channel carries CCTV and Xinhua News.
Given the will of Congress and the well-publicized collapse of foreign-language teaching in many US institutions of higher learning, it is hard to see how the US could marshal the resources to mount a competitive world service in the foreseeable future. The percentage of funding that PBS receives from government resources is minuscule. One would need to start from scratch. NPR gives a whole different slant to the news and sustains a much broader array of one-off features capturing real life in America.
What is more conspicuously missing in the Bay Area (and much of the rest of the US) is coverage of local and state government news of any merit. Sound-bite TV journalism, given its obsessions with police blotters, gay rights, and presidential sweepstakes, robs us of any knowledge of budgetary, legislative, educational, and environmental issues in Sacramento and in our local communities. The collapse of in-depth reporting, and of newspaper reading as a daily habit of the educated, doom us to poorly drafted, self-serving legislation at every level of government. Were I in a position to choose between a US-branded world service and beefed-up state and local coverage, I would opt for the latter.
Comment posted on cjr.org
“John Paton’s Big Bet” by Lauren Kirchner (CJR, July/August) is a bold illustration of the struggle that newspapers face. But it is a far cry from the sober, responsible writing that is the hallmark of the Columbia Journalism Review. Paton, the publisher of the recently out-of-bankruptcy Journal Register Company, has undertaken a survival/growth plan that may be fit for a media company at the bottom of the heap, but it is hardly an example for aspiring journalists. The article is full of statistical hocus pocus that is, unfortunately, prevalent in much of recent writing about the brave new world of digital. Paton’s idea is that income from digital will make up the loss of revenue from the traditional print editions. But the statistics, mostly in comparative percentages without related dollar figures, are not convincing. More disturbing is Paton’s prescription for replacing traditional professional writing with writing from unpaid or low-paid outside contributors.
Editor and publisher
What About Us?
The disconnect CJR writes about in its September/October editorial I see regularly in the New York Times’s news articles and business reports—both factual and analytical disconnects. Social Security-only folks are seldom mentioned in detail. People earning $25K to $50K seldom fit in their reports. They can’t be included simply because they can’t afford the items the reporter talks about. Recently, CNN talked with senior women on Social Security but they were from Palm Springs. Poor? The only “poor” one received her Social Security and worked thirty-six hours a week. Our politicians, including President Obama, also don’t get down to the nitty-gritty of the low middle class or poor, perhaps because they haven’t experienced true poverty. The same goes for most reporters. We need more of them to care about the lives of the poor and bring their stories into our nation’s conscience.
San Jose, Calif.
In Nathan Deuel’s story, “Life Near the Center of the Story” (CJR, July/August), about freelance journalists living in Istanbul, we misspelled Monique Jaques’s name. We apologize.
Elizabeth Jensen’s piece about the weak news culture of public television, “Big Bird to the Rescue?” (CJR, July/August), reported that the PBS NewsHour “never paid local stations even a nominal fee for content.” While Jensen was referring to payments to local stations for local work as a way of encouraging local coverage, it is worth noting that the PBS NewsHour did base reporters at a handful of local public stations between 1984 and 2008, and used their work on the program.