What's Not on the Air
By Michael Getler
November 20, 2009
There was a little jewel on PBS last week, an hour-plus documentary called "The Way We Get By," part of the long-running POV, or point of view, series. It was broadcast on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, and was about the "troop greeters" at the airport in Bangor, Maine, a group of retired and elderly citizens who go out at all hours of the day and night and in all kinds of weather to make sure that someone is there to provide a hello or goodbye to servicemen and women going or coming from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
More than 900,000 soldiers and Marines, and some from other services, have felt the warmth and respect of their presence for the past six years. Bangor is the last, and the first, spot on U.S. soil for many of those who serve in these wars.
The program, I thought, was superb in every way. Not many people wrote to me about it, but those who did felt the same way.
"I just watched 'The Way We Get By' on POV," wrote Judy Conley of Pelican Island, N.J. "I have never been more moved and touched by anything I have ever viewed on PBS or read anywhere. What an outstanding documentary and how wonderful to showcase those three amazingly selfless people. Thanks for such poignant programming." Kathleen Feustel of Jacksonville, Fla., added that, "Your piece on Veterans Day was moving and inspiring. My husband served 23 1/2 years and it is good for people to see the reality and pain that service members go through no matter what age they are. Thank you for the integrity of your shows."
PBS distributes lots of good programs, even lots of jewels. But this column is not about what's been on the air that viewers comment about, but rather what is not on the air that some high-profile critics have recently commented about. Keep in mind that PBS is not a network like NBC or CBS. It doesn't produce programs. It distributes them; it is a conduit, often for important programs that one can't find elsewhere and uninterrupted by commercial breaks. The programs are produced by some of the member stations, of which there are some 340 around the country, plus independent film and documentary makers.
What follows are segments of three important commentaries that have been made public recently that all have something to say about what is not on public broadcasting, or at least not very often. They are offered here without comment, but rather as some worthwhile background reading.
The first comes from a report published last month under the auspices of The Journalism School at Columbia University in New York. It is called "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Its authors are Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor and now vice president at large of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia. The report is about the extraordinary array of challenges now confronting American journalism. It provides an excellent survey of new initiatives being tried around the country to sustain vibrant, independent reporting, and places special emphasis on what Downie has always called "accountability reporting" that is essential, especially, to civic life at the local level. It also makes some recommendations.
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported on the Downie-Schudson study last month and asked Downie about the recommendations regarding public broadcasting.
The Columbia Report
This is a long report but a slightly shorter version was published this month in the Columbia Journalism Review. Despite its length, this is fast-moving and well worth reading. It devotes only a couple of relatively short segments to public broadcasting, but it makes important points. Here is one of the report's recommendations and some of the supporting observations.
"Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their Web sites. This requires urgent action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, increased congressional funding and support for public media news reporting, and changes in mission and leadership for many public stations across the country.
"The failure of much of the public broadcasting system to provide significant local news reporting reflects long-standing neglect of this responsibility by the majority of public radio and televisions stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Congress. The approximately $400 million that Congress currently appropriates for the CPB each year is far less per capita than public broadcasting support in countries with comparable economies — roughly $1.35 per capita for the United States, compared to about $25 in Canada, Australia, and Germany, nearly $60 in Japan, $80 in Britain, and more than $100 in Denmark and Finland. The lion's share of the financial support for public radio and television in the United States comes from listener and viewer donations, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and philanthropic gifts.
"It is not just a question of money, but how it is spent. Most of the money that the CPB and private donors and sponsors provide public broadcasting is spent on broadcast facilities, independent television production companies, and programming to attract audiences during fund-raising drives. In many metropolitan areas, the money supports more stations and signals than are necessary to reach everyone in the community.
"At the same time, outside of a relatively few regional public radio station groups, very little money is spent on local news coverage by individual public radio and television stations. The CPB itself, in its new Public Radio Audience Task Force Report, acknowledged that 'claiming a significantly larger role in American journalism requires a much more robust news gathering capacity — more 'feet on the street' with notebooks, recorders, cameras and more editors and producers to shape their work' for broadcast and digital distribution by public radio stations. 'The distance between current reality and the role we imagine — and that others urge upon public radio — is large,' the report concluded. And that distance is immense for the vast majority of public television stations that do no local news reporting at all.
"The CPB should declare that local news reporting is a top priority for public broadcasting and change its allocation of resources accordingly. Local news reporting is an essential part of the public education function that American public radio and television have been charged with fulfilling since their inception.
"The CPB should require a minimum amount of local news reporting by every public radio and television station receiving CPB money and require stations to report publicly to the CPB on their progress in reaching specified goals. The CPB should increase and speed up its direct funding for experiments in more robust and creative local news coverage by public stations both on the air and on their Web sites. The CPB should also aggressively encourage and reward collaborations by public stations with other local nonprofit and university news organizations.
"National leaders of public radio and television who have been meeting privately to discuss news reporting should bring their deliberations into the open; reduce wasteful rivalries among local public stations, regional and national public media, and production entities; and launch concerted initiatives to increase local news coverage. The CPB should be more assertive in its efforts to consolidate duplicative public stations and signals, and it should encourage changes in the leadership of public stations that are not capable of reorienting their missions.
"Congress should back these reforms. In its next reauthorization of the CPB and appropriation of its budget, Congress should change its name to the Corporation for Public Media, support its efforts to move public radio and television into the digital age, specify public media's local news reporting mission, and significantly increase its appropriation. Congress should also reform the governance of the reformed corporation by broadening the membership of its board with appointments by such nonpolitical sources as the Librarian of Congress or national media organizations. Ideological issues that have surfaced over publicly supported arts, cultural activities, or national news coverage should not affect decisions about significantly improving local news reporting by public media."
The Knight Commission Report
This report, even longer and published just before the Columbia report, also deals with what it calls "Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age." A good summary of the study was reported by the trade newspaper Current in its Oct. 13 edition. One of the study's recommendations is to: "Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs." Here's what it says:
"Like private media, public broadcasting in the United States has a mixed history of providing local news and information. On the one hand, a 2007 Roper opinion poll found that nearly half of all Americans trust the Public Broadcasting Service 'a great deal,' higher than the numbers rating commercial television and newspapers. On the other hand, with some notable exceptions, public broadcasting in America has been widely criticized as being insufficiently local or diverse. Public stations do not have a strong record of spearheading local investigative journalism, and most public radio broadcasters have little or no local news reporting staff. Finally, again with some promising exceptions, local public stations have failed to embrace digital innovations as a way to better connect with their communities.
"The American commitment to First Amendment values has long bred an appropriate caution against reliance on government as a sponsor of news and information. But public broadcasters in the United States have demonstrated their capacity to deliver high-quality, fair, and credible news and information programming free of government interference.
"Public broadcasting in the United States has added a context and fullness to news and information during the past 40 years. But it has fallen short of its promise. Breakthroughs in children's programming have not been mirrored in the information field. Simply put, our public media do not fully reflect the public nor engage with it sufficiently on the community level.
"It is important now for public policy in the digital age to play a more determined role in enhancing the performance of public broadcasting in local news.
"Public broadcasting needs to move quickly toward a broader vision of public service media, one that is more local, more inclusive, and more interactive. This means pursuing greater integration of new technologies and communication practices with traditional forms of broadcasting. It means using digital platforms to engage local institutions effectively in the public sphere. To advance this, government as well as private sector donors should condition their support of public media on its reform. They should support the creating, curating, and archiving of public media content on the community level.
"The Commission agrees with the recent conclusion of American University's Center for Social Media that '[w]hat is needed for the future of high-quality [public media] content is at least partial taxpayer support for the many existing operations and for innovative new projects.' Other countries with similar commitments to freedom of speech and of the press make much larger per capita contributions to the financing of public media. The United States federal government, for example, spends $1.35 per capita for public media, as compared to $22.48 per capita in Canada and $80.36 per capita in England. A modest increase in tax-supported revenues would not compromise the American model of combined government seed money and local contributions, and it would recognize that seeding local public media makes sense in the digital age. Accordingly, Congress should increase the funding available for the transformation and localization of America's public media."
And the Arts: Missing in Action as Well?
Finally, there was this recent challenge to PBS by Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in The Huffington Post:
"One of the questions I am always asked when I teach abroad is why there are not more performances by American arts organizations available on television. In other developed nations, the great arts organizations are seen regularly on television.
"There are two answers to this question. The first is the expense of filming, especially the extra wages demanded by performers and stage hands. The cost for filming one opera or ballet can exceed one million dollars, an amount that simply cannot be recouped with DVD sales after broadcast. When I ran the Royal Opera House we made a landmark deal with the artists that paid them a modest annual fee for a substantial amount of filming by the BBC. I hope we can make similar deals here in the United States.
"The second reason, however, has to do with the unique nature of America's public television organization. PBS is a vital institution. It has provided important educational, artistic, and news programming for decades. But PBS is not a network like CBS or ABC. It is a cooperative of local stations. Most programming is created by one local station and then distributed to other local stations.
"While local input and content is important, this means that major, expensive programs, like arts programming and dramatic series, come only from stations that can afford to create this programming, meaning those with strong fundraising operations. And far too few of the local stations do have strong fundraising operations. This is why so many of the arts programs we do see emanate from New York City, whose WNET is one of the most prominent stations in the television service.
"There is so much wonderful art being produced across the nation, but this work is not available often enough on national television. I would like to see the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company or the St. Louis Opera or Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis — important arts organizations doing interesting work — featured on national public television. But the decision is left to the local stations, most without the resources to mount important arts programming.
"Why can't PBS be reorganized? Why can't there be a mix of local and national programming? Why can't the parent organization determine the best in American arts and fund its broadcast across the nation? I have to believe that a national programming effort would be extremely attractive to major national funders, who are now approached primarily by regional stations. And while the local stations might protest some loss of autonomy, if this change resulted in better programming, higher ratings and a larger contributions base to share, I have to believe that many of the stations would appreciate the change.
"The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which annually provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the parent organization and to the local stations, has the clout to make this happen. Couldn't CPB dedicate some of its grant to PBS for programming of national importance? Isn't it time for a discussion of the merits of a change in structure?"
I'm going to be away from the office next week and back on Dec. 1, but you can't say that I didn't leave you with lots of reading material.