An Unexpected Farewell
It is with mixed emotions that I write today’s column since it will be my last in the role of PBS Public Editor. I will be returning to work in a daily newsroom, a place I've spent most of my career.
In the past year I have tried to fulfill the role I laid out in my first column, to not only respond to the queries of the audience and fulfill the role as interlocutor between the audience and content creators, but I’ve also tried to address some broader issues in the media world, and explain how PBS operates in that world.
I could write about the news of the last year, about how many of you think that political coverage is biased (interestingly biased both for and against President Trump); how many of you are angry that NewsHour continues to give airtime to the president’s tweets or how NewsHourdoesn’t pay enough attention to what the president is actually doing; how many of you love/hate Mark Shields or David Brooks.
There is a lack of civility amongst many viewers of PBS that I was frankly surprised about. We get profanity laced, all caps, sometimes racist letters that I did not expect. But I think that is a reflection of the times we live in.
I’ve tried to address specific concerns about news coverage on a case-by-case basis as honestly and professionally as I could. However, it’s clear that for many people their minds have been made up.
Rather, I want to highlight some of the other things I’ve been concerned with over the last year.
It has been the year of #MeToo, scandals about sexual harassment that have touched PBS most prominently in the cases of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. Many of you disagreed with the decision made by PBS to sever ties with both of these men. I thought that was the right decision at the time and my opinion has not changed. Mr. Smiley sued PBS and the case was dismissed. However, that is not the period on that particular story as Mr. Smiley and PBS have not yet ended their tussle. I am hoping that my successor will be able to provide you with the final chapter of this saga.
We have had a steady trickle of emails that end with some variation of “my taxpayer dollars are paying for what you do and I don’t like it so I want you defunded.” In this column I tried to explain how federal dollars work as part of public media funding and how stations access that money. I hope that you will use this column for reference whenever you have questions about funding.
The audience has been concerned about what might be described as “creeping advertising.” I understand where that sentiment comes from but as I tried to explain in this column, sometimes an ad is not really an ad.
My personal interest has been in the changing landscape of technology and how we as an audience access content and the implications of that for PBS.
Firstly, the sheer explosion of content providers has had profound implications for PBS, particularly in the area of costume drama (one of my favorite genres). I addressed the challenges to PBS in this column. It is heartening that PBS and Masterpiece are still home to many extraordinarily good dramas including Victoria, Poldark and Endeavor – all of which are returning to PBS stations in the next year.
Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are pushing PBS to expand its offerings and to provide more on-demand viewing. The biggest development in that area is the creation of the Passport program, a member benefit that provides members with access to a whole host of past programs in addition to exclusive content for Passport only.
The Passport program is not without controversy. You can see it as a member benefit, like a tote bag or a coffee mug, or you can see it as a paywall. I can see how some may see it as a paywall, but as I’ve tried to explain in my columns, the challenges of rights to content produced by a vast array of producers and not owned by PBS means PBS does not have rights in perpetuity. Passport is still new to the system and I look forward to seeing how it develops. I plan to keep up my membership to Passport.
As I explained in my very first column, PBS is not a content creator or a network or a newsroom. It is a membership organization that distributes content (along with other distributors) to local public television stations.
Your local PBS station is just that, it is your local PBS station. It is locally owned, autonomous in its decision-making and responds to and serves its local community. That’s why you are often asked to "Check Local Listings" when you see promotions for particular programs.
The public media system (television and radio) is one of the few remaining, robust local news, information and cultural, systems left in the country. For those of you who run stations, I would encourage you to improve the dialogue between you and your audience, make it easier for them to connect with you. For those of you who are the audience, I would encourage you to support your local station and take an active part in helping reflect the best of your local community.
I have spent more than a decade of my career in public media. It has a vital role to play in the diversity of our media sources. It has been a privilege to serve in the role of PBS Public Editor and though I am moving on to other challenges, my support of public media remains strong.
Posted on Sept. 6, 2018 at 9 a.m.