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PBS Public Editor
A Milestone of Note
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Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act. 

Here’s some of what he had to say about that bill: “It announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a 'chicken in every pot.' We in America have an appetite for excellence, too.  While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act.” You can read the rest of his speech here.

The specific intention of the Act was to ensure a public/private partnership that focuses on the production of high quality, educational content “not the trivial purposes” as Johnson called it, through the creation of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting that would ensure dispersion of seed funding in local communities across the country who work with in their local markets to ensure that no single corporate entity drives local coverage. In fact you've probably seen some promotions like this one on your local station 

Over the coming weeks I will be working on some basic explainers to enlighten you, the public, on how public broadcasting works, from funding, to structural organization and everything in between.

For now, the key point to note in these times of media consolidation is that your local public television (and radio) stations are among the few media entities left that are owned and operated locally.  That federated system is among the many things I will be exploring in the coming weeks.

MAIL (grab) BAG

In our increasingly polarized times it seems that we are increasingly seeing only what we want to see.  We pay attention and latch on to ideas that reinforce our own beliefs.  We hear a phrase or sentence and shut out everything else around it that might provide more detail or context.

A regular feature of mail that comes in to the Public Editor inbox is the mail that is full of  indignation about a story or show that has aired on a PBS station that is counter to the particular belief of the viewer (in their mind).  Invariably there will be complaints from opposing sides complaining about the same program.  I guess that might be classed as a success on the part of the producer that criticism can come from opposing viewpoints.

Two emails we recently received are examples of this kind of reaction.  Many PBS stations are currently airing a documentary VA, The Human Cost of War.

David from Illinois writes, “Watched your doc on VA crisis, how is it only republican issue?”

Diane from Cupertino, Calif., says “It is not a documentary, it is a politically motivated commentary paid for by a Trump supporter, to support the administrations effort to privatze (sic) the VA. THIS IS A HATCHET JOB ON THE VA.” Her lengthy email continues in this vein.  Diane says she attended a screening of the film that was available to the public. 

How did David come to his assessment?  Maybe a comment about that fact that the Republican led Congress that came in in 1995 expanded eligibility for VA services without adding funding?

And Diane?  I’m not sure.  Having watched the documentary I would say that its conclusion seems to be that the VA would not be better off privatized and that the challenges that the VA faces and its solutions do lie in the hands of Congress (not one party or the other) with adequate forethought and funding a necessary part of any discussion about the toll of wars on the fine men and women who serve their country.

As for the funding of this program, Steeplechase Films did not seek any third party funding for this film.

Both viewers are passionate about the VA and I am grateful that they shared their thoughts about the program. If there are some facts they can send in to support their contentions our office would be happy to look into them. 

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I hope that you caught some of PBS NewsHour's series America Addicted, which covered many facets of the opioid crisis the country is currently facing in a compelling and comprehensive way.  Although there were some stories that dealt with new developments in the area of pain management, Al Lakosky wrote to say that he felt there should have been more focus on chronic pain sufferers who are managing their opioid prescriptions responsibly. "If it were not for my pain medication, i would be a totally non-productive person and would struggle to find a reason to keep living at 64 years of age.  I hope you see why I get disgusted when i hear that people should get off opiates and go to work.  It is quite the opposite for real pain people."  I am sympathetic to Mr. Lakosky's plight and would suggest that stories like his, and other chronic pain sufferers might be explored in future stories about opioid use in America.

Fifty years on, it is the relationship with the public that remains the bedrock of all public broadcasting and keeping those channels open in a spirit of civilized critique. I look forward to your continued engagement with PBS and this office.

Posted at 11:33 a.m.