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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University’s Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM’s research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

“Here is what I still don’t get,” wrote NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen in response to my November 18 article, “how can public media develop a strategy or simply a coherent response to the culture war in which it is entangled if it cannot admit to itself or reason publicly with the fact that only one side in the culture war wants to destroy it… and the other one doesn’t? What is public media’s culture war strategy? Not to have one?”

Rosen’s comment prompted a few thoughtful answers, first on MediaShift in the comments, and then at an impromptu session at Sunday’s Public Media Camp.

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Click here to read the entire series

“I don’t think it’s the place of public media to ‘take sides in the culture war,” wrote MediaShift executive editor Mark Glaser. “I think it’s public media’s role to provide a forum for different opinions on the culture war, and give space for diverse opinions on it. That doesn’t mean that individuals who are a part of public media can’t give their opinions, and they should. The ‘view from nowhere’ only goes so far. But should NPR, PBS, etc try to out-dittohead the dittoheads? That doesn’t make sense either.” Instead, he suggested, the already-existing fan base for public broadcasting brands should be rallied. “There are already millions of people who support public media financially through donations, so maybe it takes a grassroots effort by those people to counter all the attacks.”

Station manager Anthony Hunt suggested that a workable strategy might be to “develop allies that have much better armor than we do, or certainly don’t want to see us change our attempts to remain value neutral because this fight won’t be going away anytime soon.” He suggests that public-media makers need help because they’re under-resourced, and “bring a tote-bag to a knife fight” — a phrase that echoed a quip by Jon Stewart in response to conservative comments about the Juan Williams flap.

Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs, who helped to organize the PubCamp, suggested going on the offensive by developing “a 50 state strategy that includes gathering your troops (biggest fans) and preparing to mobilize them for war,” and, somewhat jokingly, “taking a page out of cereal/fast food marketers’ playbooks: go after their kids early and often, and then turn them on their parents.”

Jauvan Moradi, who works at NPR Digital Media, suggested that rather than a “culture war” strategy, what’s needed is a better business strategy, to deal with the possibilities of reduced funding.

“There are certainly tensions today,” he wrote, “progressive vs. conservative, public values vs. private interest, urban vs. rural, new economy vs. old — arguably reaching a pinnacle not seen in prior decades. But public media has never been a monoculture of us vs. them. Every local market has a different flavor that reflects the interests and diversity of its audience. The national content producers strive for a sort of neutrality that not only reflects our journalistic sensibilities but also allows for a sort of universality that works with the local flavors in hundreds of towns and cities. It’s not our place to take a side amidst cultural tension.”

Rosen disagreed. “I think culture war is precisely the right word for that is happening, and for the dynamic I am pointing out. The attempt to de-fund NPR — an actual vote in the House of Representatives — because of what happened with Juan Williams has no other logic than culture war logic…Now if the people in public media come to the conclusion: ‘There’s nothing we can do; it’s up to people outside the system to make our case. We’re not a participant in these so-called culture wars. We’re just the victim, the target….’ I can understand that, too, but they should at least arrive at that conclusion after thinking it through.”

Rosen Appears via Skype

In order to think it through some more, Rosen joined Public Media Camp attendees via Skype for a discussion of strategies and obstacles. Here are a few highlights from the discussion:

  • Andy Carvin of NPR noted that the organization’s government affairs office is firewalled from the editorial side of the house, which allows it to advocate. On the digital strategy end, the big question is “Can NPR mobilize people?” Right now, ethics and social media rules prevent that.
  • Several attendees noted that there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation being circulated about the structure and funding of public broadcasting, and debated whether members of the public might respond to a campaign to clarify the issues, or simply ignore it.
  • Threaded throughout the discussion were comments that any battle to save or expand public media could not be waged on only one side of the partisan divide. Core supporters in past fights have been rural Republicans, whose constituents depend heavily on public broadcasting for news and educational resources in otherwise weak media markets.
  • Maxie Jackson, president and CEO of the National Federation for Community Broadcasters, suggested that NPR is now “toxic,” and that organizing efforts should focus on the services that public stations provide to users in their communities. He noted that the stations that serve Native Americans provide a stark example of how much local service is crucial to underserved populations.
  • Corbett suggested a viral “I [heart] NPR” day, to mobilize and inspire fans who might then be primed to respond politically when the time came.

Rosen warned that advocates for public broadcasting need to appeal not just to facts, but to pay heed to frames. There’s a tendency, he noted, to think “we’re not communicating clearly — sometimes that’s true, but in a culture war, there’s ‘systematically distorted communication.’ It’s not a messaging problem, it’s that there are actors who profit from this distortion. It’s important to know when you’re in this situation — the goal is to engage those who aren’t engaged in systematically distorted communication and discredit and shame those who distort.”

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University’s Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University’s Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM’s research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.