Public Media Cheerleaders Want to “Save” Us from Ourselves

by Mike Wendy on October 8, 2010

I recently attended an event at the New America Foundation called Public Media in a Digital Age, which examined “public funding, public policy, and public media in the future of news.”

The event was co-hosted by Steve Coll, President, New America Foundation, and Josh Silver, President and CEO, Free Press; and it featured Mark Thompson, Director General, British Broadcasting Corporation; Nicholas Lemann, Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; Geneva Overholser, Director,
USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism; and Paula Kerger
Public Broadcasting Service.

Just below, I edited some video together (3 clips, in all totaling about two minutes in length) from the event that I think is somehow illustrative of the group’s main lament.  That is – the commercial media marketplace for “quality” programming and journalism is broken; and public media, mainly through public support, is there to “save” it.

Sitting on the other side of their groupthink, I found a number of matters interesting.

In the first clip, you’ll see Josh Silver bemoan the “broken” state of commercial media, and then frame the event’s discussion as one that must, among other things, address the firewalls needed (as a result of public funding) to ensure a robust, independent media which can enrich democracy.  Sadly, as the event unfolded, little of this discussion ensued.  Yes, Mark Thompson talked about the BBC’s charter and positive experience of limiting undue  political influence.  And, Nicholas Lemann mentioned that journalists are uniformly against the idea of publicly funded media for the very reason that it can jeopardize the independence of the media – an idea that should have been explored much further.  But, the nuts and bolts were missing.  This is no small matter.  When public funding of the media – especially journalism – is mentioned, I want to know what firewalls will be in place to ensure that it will not be tainted by politics or appropriations cycles, or act like Pravda.  It is not enough to say – “Look at NPR, it’s one of the most trusted media sources in America, and they do it.”   Quite frankly, I do not think they do it, with the balance of its reportage being “left-leaning” and overt in its promotion of an ever-enlarging Nanny State to solve all of our needs.  If that’s an example of firewalls working, then any such publicly-funded system is in trouble.  NPR’s the ostensible “best in class.”  Imagine the worst?

Returning to Silver’s thesis – i.e., the “broken-ness” of America’s commercial media market – I was struck by how clearly each panelist accepted the “broken market” as an undisputed fact (sort of like global warming).  Of course, it’s in the interest of each panelist to decry this “state” of affairs.  And, to be sure, America’s media outlets are under siege, trying to meet the combined challenges of digital technologies and new viewership habits.  But it also flies in the face of such statements as that from Jeff Bewkes, CEO Time Warner (in his recent WSJ opinion piece The Coming Golden Age of Television), which hint at just the opposite – or, certainly something far less “broken”:

“By just about any measure, television is a very healthy industry—with viewership, advertising and subscriptions all on the rise. In fact, in terms of overall revenue, TV networks and video programming are among the only media to grow since the advent of the Internet (aside from the Internet itself). For audiences, there’s more choice than ever before—with higher quality and more original programming…”

Sure, Bewkes has a dog in the fight.  But, clearly, the situation is not nearly as dire as the “public-istas” proclaim.  They have to derogate commercial media in order to amplify their diminutive stature, and justify ever-more funding of their little-watched programming.

Finally, the last two clips, with Geneva Overholser and Paula Kergen, bring the elitism home.  Overholser blames the commercial market failure (“that they have found”) on a finicky marketplace, which now plays a radically different role in the consumption, use and creation of media products today.  In her view, the commercial media just hasn’t gotten hip to it yet.   That to “fix” it, the media simply have to adapt and go where the public is, and then create with them.  Easy-peasy.  Hmmm.  Later in the event, Kergen exploits this theme for the opportunity that it represents: a crisis of sorts which calls for more public funding to make America’s media landscape better for America and our self-governance (perhaps as only public programs can).  Hooray for PBS (I guess)!

The New America Foundation certainly brings some star power to events such as these.  That said, the event could have been far better if the “commercial media” were there to defend themselves.  If one was to believe everything that they claimed at the event, one would be left with the appalling feeling that, but for publicly-funded media, no one would be eating the “digital broccoli” they need to sustain our democracy.

But, really, this is the problem.  The panelists and the system they represent suffer from a snobby elitism that belies their true status – and that is 12th place among 10 runners. In any given week, shows like America’s Got Talent (with ~15+ million viewers) or American Idol (with ~19+ million viewers) together capture more than half the audience numbers of all PBS weekly viewers combined (which is ~60 million for the entire week).  And that Vox Pop just gets under their skin.

The New America panelists gasp (figuratively), “If only, if only, if only America would watch, then WE could save America from itself.”

But we do watch.   Just not them.  Our bad.

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