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A last chance to fix CPB

Remember that publicly funded broadcasters are supposed to be independent of political interference; that independence is of great value to the public radio and public television journalists who cover our government and events in other nations. As other news networks reduce their coverage of national and international events, public broadcasting is our source for more.

The question that Congress needs to address is not whether the national providers of public programming should be shut down. It’s how to reform the legislation that created these institutions, given the changing media landscape.

After all, a lot has changed since government funding for public broadcasting was launched in 1973. That law was written before the Internet and digital technology made programming more portable and available to anyone with either a computer or a WI-FI connected device.

The media universe today is far more diverse than it once was. No longer do three major television networks dominate what people watch. FM and AM radio is competing with global satellite radio for listeners. If one made the argument in 1973 that public broadcasting was needed to broaden the choices available to viewers and listeners, that argument today simply does not have the same currency – and we should be grateful for that.

These new trends have greatly changed the environment where public broadcasters operate. And thus, Congress should revisit and reevaluate the relevance of the existing legislation. Here are some core topics for consideration.

In 1967 Congress legislated that public broadcasters maintain a “strict adherence to objectivity and balance.” Such a benchmark has proven itself to be at best difficult, if not virtually impossible to measure. Allison Graham, the noted American political scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government observed that any individual’s perspective on objectivity and balance will depend on where he or she sits. CPB’s own Inspector General found that “most people have tried, but no one has yet determined how to measure objectivity and balance objectively.” As such, Congress should think about amending the authorizing legislation so that public broadcasters are expected to adhere strictly to measurable and definable standards of accuracy and transparency. If nothing else, both PBS and NPR and their affiliates must be known for their factual rigor and willingness to correct mistakes.

In addition, Congress needs to delineate what public broadcasters can and cannot do with regard to the ever evolving and expanding digital and online media universe. None of these media platforms existed when the legislation was passed. Although underwriters of public programming have been restricted from promoting their products on public television and radio, there is no such legislative restriction regarding their sponsorship of online streaming of the very same programs. 

Just the other day I visited a public broadcasting channel’s online site where support was acknowledged to an international watchmaker with the corporate logo prominently displayed.  I clicked on that logo and was brought to the watchmaker’s official marketing site. This corporation therefore is realizing public acknowledgement for its sponsoring public broadcasting and at the same time is receiving both the accompanying tax-deduction as well as a corporate commercial link courtesy of its gift to the public station. This isn’t right. The resulting commercial link provides an unfair competitive business advantage that was not intended by the original legislation.

The emergence of the digital media universe has also reshaped the manner in which news and information is being received. Decisions need to be made as to how the online public broadcasting site should function. Can it put emerging stories immediately up on their web sites without meeting the standards to which news and information on public radio or television is held? Can public broadcasters continue to provide the opportunity for “citizen journalists” to post their opinions on a public broadcasting site? What standards need to be met and who will be held accountable for implementation of these standards? What will be the consequence of non-compliance?

To be sure, none of this discourse in Congress would have stopped the firing of Juan Williams.  However, reforms need to be made in an effort to renew public broadcasting’s core mission and reaffirm the public’s stake in its integrity and quality for  the digital media age. As a former chair of CPB, I believe the public broadcasting community believes deeply in its unique service function. It would be a pity for that lofty purpose to be undone because some elements within the community lost touch with that core purpose, and if Congress did not try one more time to reemphasize it. Failing that, it would not surprise me if Congress did end up defunding public broadcasters and let them continue forward, as any other broadcast entity, on air and online without government-imposed restrictions and without any government financial support.

Cheryl Halpern served as chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 2005 to 2007.


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