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June 28, 2005

the future of public broadcasting

I know quite a few people who work in and around public broadcasting; and over the years I have been involved in several behind-the-scenes projects with them. So my heart is with public radio and television. However, I wonder if there really is a future for federally-funded mass media. It seems to me that several major factors are working against it:

1. Liberals and conservatives both sincerely believe that the mainstream private media are strongly biased against them. This doesn't mean that they are both right; but their feelings are genuine and deeply held. It's difficult to influence Fox or CBS if you don't like its prograns, but any organized group can apply political pressure to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Therefore, as long as liberals and conservatives feel victimized by most of the mass media, they will be sorely tempted to try to move CPB in a favorable direction. Trying to argue for "neutrality" or "balance" won't protect public broadcasting, because there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral form of communication. Nor will it work to argue for "independence." Some governing board must run CPB, and its members must somehow be chosen by politicians. Short of empanelling a jury of random citizens to manage public broadcasting, there is no such thing as "independence."
2. Many Americans are moved by what I have called the "Jeffersonian principle." Jefferson once wrote, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." It's actually impossible to have a government without compelling people to fund the "propagation of opinions" that they dislike. For example, as long as we pay the salary of a president, he (or she) may say things we abhor. Nevertheless, Americans see a moral harm if they are forced to pay tax dollars for communications that they disagree with. It doesn't matter how trivial the cost. Therefore, people will get much more angry about programming supported by CPB than anything on the commercial networks.
3. CPB has always had a top-down model: famous and distinguished people conduct a "peer review" processes to allocate funds. This is elitism, for better and for worse. It certainly doesn't help to build a strong popular base.
4. A major rationale for public funding was the monopoly of the major networks ca. 1970. On its face, the media environment appears much more competitive and pluralistic today.
5. Much of the most creative "public media" doesn't seem to need federal money or access to the broadcast spectrum. It consists of websites, low-power radio stations, blogs, podcasts, and other quasi-amateur work.

I'm torn between two strategic arguments. One says: All the grassroots, amateur media work is small potatoes. It's destined for a niche market of hippies and hackers. We can work to grant low-power radio stations more rights and to relax certain intellectual-property laws to enhance the free sharing of information, but these reforms will have a marginal impact, at best. Ultimately, any great democracy must create an organized, mass public media space, of which the BBC is a classic example.

The other says: Congress will never appropriate substantial amounts of money for a broadcast system that's of high quality and independent (whatever that would mean). Fortunately, many-to-many media like blogs can compete with mass commercial media, because the former are more creative and more fun. Thus the realistic strategy is not to worry about CPB but to put our energies into a media system that's pluralistic, decentralized, and basically free of federal dollars.

Posted by peterlevine at June 28, 2005 09:56 AM

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