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Pubcasting Battle: Now it Gets Ugly

Over the past few weeks, I've been tracking the cases made by public broadcasting advocates and allies to defend the sector against Congressional efforts to defund CPB. After gaining a bit of breathing room with the budget decision, those supporting public media had begun to mount a more concerted campaign—until today.

NPR—already in the bull's-eye because of last year's controversy over the Juan Williams firing—now finds itself the subject of a "sting" video, in which two guerilla filmmakers posing as potential donors from a Muslim extremist group lunched with Ron Schiller, the outgoing president of the NPR Foundation. (See the video here at the Project Veritas site—run by James O'Keefe, best known for producing similar videos targeting ACORN in which he posed as a pimp.) During the course of the lunch, Schiller made several inflammatory statements, including suggesting that NPR would be "better off in the long run without federal funding," and "most of the stations would survive." What's more Schiller criticized the Republican Party, describing "particularly the tea party" as  "fanatically involved in people's personal lives and very fundamental Christian" as well as "white, middle America, gun-toting....seriously racist, racist people."

Although NPR refused the $5 million donation offered by the two imposters, Schiller's comments flew in the face of a talk by NPR President Vivian Schiller (no relation) just the previous day at the National Press Club. There, she argued that federal funding is a critical lynchpin for NPR's fundraising efforts, and that the organization has been particularly careful to re-examine its ethical standards in light of recent controversies. (The prepared text of her comments is available here). Her remarks followed on the heels of an AP piece praising the investments of millions by CPB, NPR and PBS into investigative and local reporting.

Increasingly, public media organizations are finding themselves the target of exactly the polarized and aggressive reporting and activist tactics to which they're attempting to provide an antidote. As Chris Good suggests in The Atlantic, the Project Veritas video "hits all the right buttons in the defunding discussion. It resonates with ideological enmities by placing liberal politics at the scene of a fundraising discussion, serves up fodder for anyone who already suspects NPR wants to promote radical-Muslim, pro-Palestinian views, and, most importantly, normalizes the view that NPR would be fine without federal dollars." To survive and thrive in such an environment, public media makers need to figure out not only how to "slow down" and watch what they're saying, as Deborah Potter warned in the March/April issue of American Journalism Review, but to simultaneously become more nimble, inclusive and responsive given the volatile 24-7 news cycle. We'll see how this plays out in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, on other fronts:

  • Also in The Atlantic, former FCC, PBS, and Carnegie Foundation chairman Newton N. Minow offers an impassioned defense of the public interest in media. "The next 50 years will see even more technological miracles," he writes "including the marriage of computers, television, telephony, and the Internet. What we need, to accompany these changes, are critical choices about the values we want to build into our 21st-century communications system—and the public policies to support them." He suggests six goals for communications policymakers, including bolstering Internet freedom, auctioning off spectrum to serve new telecom-related educational, emergency and healthcare needs, increasing public broadcasting funding, and providing additional airtime to political candidates.
  • NBC's Shelly Palmer argues that public broadcasting needs a few more years of support before it can be untethered safely from federal funding. He predicts that it will take "about three years to create a new business model that will allow non-profit and not-for-profit content distribution companies to thrive in the 21st century. Three more years of funding for Public Broadcasting is a rounding error to the Federal Budget, but it is an extension that will mean the difference between life and death for this wonderful 20th century media experiment."
  • Public stations such as WDSC  and WGCU in Florida and a network of Illinois stations are preparing for federal budget cuts by reducing staff and focusing on fundraising. 
  • In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Vince Stehle writes that it makes little sense to defund public media as demand for quality news rises. "Other types of nonprofit news and information organizations are sprouting, too." he notes. "Perhaps these new groups, plus existing radio and television stations and other innovative efforts, should be considered together and given sizable government support to insure that the public interest is served by the new media ecology."
  • On the Huffington Post, progressive author and Wake Forest professor David Coates suggests that fighting to retain public broadcasting is not just about dollars or ideology, but protecting democracy itself:

Publics and markets, citizens and consumers, only conflate in democracies in which purchasing power is equally distributed. The contemporary United States is not such a democracy. Instead, and with income distribution as socially and regionally uneven as is currently the case, public broadcasting in the United States has a unique and profoundly democratic role to play. Profit-driven media outlets are under enormous commercial pressure to deliver only programming that can attract large advertising revenues and mass audiences, at the cost of programs privileging minority interests and quality output. Take public broadcasting away, and short-term market imperatives will rule the airways, with serious negative long-term effects on the range and quality of what is regularly available to the American listener and viewer.

More next week—plus a report from the Integrated Media Association Conference, where public broadcasters will be discussing strategies for innovation.

UPDATE: March 9—NPR just announced that President and CEO Vivian Schiller has resigned. See Michael Marcotte's suggestions for reforming ethical guidelines for not only editorial, but development processes.