Public broadcasting is a vital public service

And this week, there are reports that the U.S. State Department will fund the BBC, Britain’s public broadcasting service, with a “significant sum” of money to help combat the blocking of TV and Internet services in countries including Iran and China.

When there is need to reach key audiences with factual and trusted information, public broadcasting delivers.

Ten years ago, Newt Gingrich told me in our studios in Saint Paul, Minn., that he was wrong in 1995 to try and cut public broadcasting’s funding. “In the end,” he said, “my message was getting out more effectively and accurately through public broadcasting than through any other means.”

Public broadcasting as we know it today was born in 1967. Its first leaders were generally young, often inexperienced and sometimes naïve. The industry wasn’t very important. There was no NPR or PBS. The country was in turmoil over the Vietnam War. But President Johnson, a commercial broadcaster himself, saw something that few others did — the opportunity to reach radio and television audiences with important programming that the commercial marketplace, by nature of its structure, could never embrace.

Johnson persuaded Congress to create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and he appointed a board of experienced, recognized leaders. Significant Republicans, Democrats and Independents with experience running major entities put their best efforts behind the fledgling idea. Their charter called for creating a public broadcasting system similar to what we have today. 

Yet public broadcasting in the U.S. was 45 years behind the emergence of the BBC. It had a hodgepodge of owners. It had growing pains. Unlike the NHK or the BBC, which are fully funded by their governments, it was asked to create a uniquely American public media system with only modest support from the federal government, combined with institutional support and private donations. It was built on little money, but also on the strength of such a great idea that it attracted idealists who were willing to work for little in the hope of having impact — mission-driven individuals for whom the message was more important than anything else.

The unrelated radio and television stations that became the public broadcasting system were owned in large part by liberal arts colleges and universities, nonprofit advocacy organizations, municipalities with politicized hiring processes, well-meaning libraries and community corporations often starved for funds. The fact that they were able to pull together under the leadership of the CPB to create the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media (APM), WGBH, Public Radio International (PRI), (Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), WNET and other program producers, along with a way to fund the whole system, is a testament to the strength of the idea.

But if you go to Europe or Asia and study the difference in public media in those regions versus our systems in the U.S., you begin to see our mistake. Public broadcasting here has matured since 1970, but only slowly. We have governing structures that do not always serve us best. We have leadership that often lacks the discipline and selection criteria demanded by strong governing boards. And we have inefficiencies as a result of our disparate structures. Our mistake in America was to not take this essential tool of democracy more seriously.

Despite these problems — most recently evident at NPR — public broadcasting serves more than half the nation each month with the highest quality news and cultural programming; balanced, fair and nonpartisan news and information; well-designed and researched children’s programming; and award-winning cultural and educational programs that reflect the best of the nation. 

Each administration since President Johnson’s has agreed there is an important but limited role for the federal government in supporting public media. Unfortunately, no administration since has supported any advanced development. 

Today, we face the reality of a country that is near bankruptcy. The people who have the power to change that — Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike — are increasingly being divided by polarized media and underserved by the weakening traditional media. As a result, there is an increasingly important role for public media to serve as a centering institution for this country.

The logic of denying public broadcasting funding while emphasizing the importance of branding it as “liberal” or “conservative” is foolhardy. Those who have the wisdom to have attained any significant level of power in this country are often not easily characterized as either. Such branding serves no purpose. The mistake Congress may be making — once again — is to use these stereotypes to keep America’s public media system just above starvation, funding it at about 2 percent the rate of its professional peers in Europe and Asia — or even cutting that 2 percent altogether. That makes it exceedingly difficult for public broadcasting to fulfill its promise — to be what the U.S. State Department recognized and valued when they decided to help fund the BBC.

Public media is America’s best friend. It is Congress’s best friend. It reaches the people who, on every level of our society, from ordinary voters to community leaders to corporate CEOs, make the decisions in this country. Informing them well, as Newt Gingrich discovered, puts the power of factual information prepared by top professionals, with no editorializing or bias of ownership, directly into the hands of the leadership of America. All parties win in that environment. The loss will come if public media is starved to the point of having to give control over its powerful transmitters and Internet services to whomever is left — well meaning but inexperienced and often naïve, mission-driven people, with strong political views, for whom material rewards mean little and advocacy is everything.

Public media won’t disappear, any more than Facebook will. But we face a bigger challenge than the headlines reflect: it can be dangerously weakened or further strengthened. To succeed, it needs not just monetary support, but the kind of attention to governance that President Johnson provided in populating the first board of the CPB; the kind of leadership that is the hallmark of great institutions and that can change a balkanized system into a unified system; and the kind of review of policies that results in even more professional performance and greater impact. 

Taking on this challenge would truly serve all Americans, and make public media into something that all political parties would embrace as essential to their success.

Bill Kling is CEO of American Public Media.