The fight over public broadcasting

March 17, 2011

The House of Representatives is voting today on a bill that would prevent public radio stations from paying their NPR dues with federal money. This follows the video that brought down NPR head Vivian Schiller and senior VP Ron Schiller (no relation to each other).

Of course, the video was heavily edited to be blatantly misleading--and this should come as no surprise. James O'Keefe, the conservative activist behind the sting, has done this sort of thing before. Chris Rovzar finds O'Keefe's behavior perplexing:

At a certain point, liberal institutions should start counting these O'Keefe videos as actual victories. If he can't make a compelling video without absurd cutting and pasting, surely these places are actually doing something right. At the very least, they'll hopefully stop firing people the minute the "stings" are released and start learning from their mistakes - something O'Keefe himself seems strangely unwilling to do.

I agree that O'Keefe's targets need to handle him better. But his approach would seem a lot stranger to me if it wasn't so effective. O'Keefe released the 11-minute edited video and the two hours of raw footage the same day, inviting viewers to "judge for yourself." Taking comfort in this gesture of transparency, most people didn't bother watching the longer video--raw footage of a two-hour lunch is awfully boring, and the shorter version helpfully compiles all the interesting stuff that was said.

Along with some that wasn't. But by the time the discrepancies were thoroughly analyzed--by Scott Baker at Glenn Beck site the Blaze--the damage had been done. Which was of course the whole idea. Well played, O'Keefe--that's some serious (and seriously cynical) media savvy.

Last weekend, NPR's own On the Media focused on the organization's PR woes and threatened funding. Much of the show was about the history of public funding for broadcasting in the U.S., as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is on congressional Republicans' list of useful, trivially cheap things the government should stop funding. Hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield went over the history with NPR old-timers, questioned former senator Larry Pressler's charges of unprofessionalism and pointed out that cutting the CPB would hurt small-market public radio stations the most.

One of the more interesting moments came in Gladstone's interview with libertarian journalist Nick Gillespie, who offered this comparison:

I think that the analogous model here is religion and religious expression. We all want to live in a world where everybody can worship whatever God they want but nobody is forced to pay for other people's belief systems, whether we're talking about Presbyterians and Baptists or FOX News enthusiasts and PBS tote bag holders.

Gillespie went on to insist that he's not concerned about any media organization's sociopolitical leanings, only that they not be taxpayer supported. The argument has a certain libertarian elegance, though it's undercut both by Gillespie's red state/blue state examples and by the leap he makes in calling media preferences "belief systems."

More importantly, there are larger differences between FOX News and public media than the politics of typical viewers and listeners--and it's hard to argue that our democracy would be better off if more news outlets answered to ratings, advertisers and the whims of Rupert Murdoch. To reiterate: less than one 8,000th of the federal budget goes to the CPB.

Later in the program, Ira Glass came on to issue a challenge: instead of soberly discussing the merits of public funding for broadcasting, On the Media ought to directly address charges that public radio's news programming has a liberal bias--by looking at the evidence. It's one thing to say listeners or even journalists lean left personally; it's quite another to find bias in the actual story choices and reporting.

I plan to tune in next week to see what Gladstone and Garfield come up with. At a minimum, it promises to be more edifying than a video edited to intentionally misrepresent a fundraiser (not a journalist) and embarrass his organization.


Your spin

When the Johnson administration founded the Center For Public Broadcasting there were supposed to be checks against biased broadcasting...those checks have not been effective. For example, Nina Totenberg is one of the more liberally biased journalists in journalism today. You may not like the tactics of Mr. O'Keefe, but why not deal with the substance of what he's found as opposed to attacking his methods? You reveal your own bias by not doing so. You are simply not being objective. The objectivity of mainline journalism has been suspect for 50 years or more. Statistics indicate that a frightfully high percentage of mainline journalists have a very liberal voting seems to me that anyone interested in fairness and accuracy would be concerned about that and investigate it. If public funding is so insignificant then why not give it up? Why fight it? Are you happy with the way NPR treated Juan Williams?

Anon, One of the great things


One of the great things about blogging is that it isn't necessary to cover every angle when others have done it effectively already; you can just link to them. The Blaze has effectively and fairly looked at the substance of the unedited O'Keefe video--see my link above.

As I said above, the issue is not journalists' personal voting record--it's whether there's evidence of bias in their actual story choices and reporting. Saying they're biased isn't the same as demonstrating it.

Public funding for the CPB is a small but not negligible part of NPR's budget, and--again, as already mentioned--it's a huge part of small-market stations' budget. It's insignificant in terms of its share of the overall federal budget, which is an entirely different thing.

As for biases in my own work, I'm not a hard-news reporter. What would be the point of opinion journalism without opinion?

Your spin

Yes, you are right, the issue IS whether or not reporting is biased. While I agree that one's voting record does not NECESSARILY indicate a similar bias in reporting, it's reasonable to be suspicious when the voting record is SO biased. While starting out as a left-leaning ideologue, my study of the press over the past 20-25 years has pushed me in a more conservative direction. Some studies covering the past 50 years or so have indicated that a disturbingly high percentage of mainline journalists (as high as 80 to 85% in some surveys!) vote for the more liberal candidate in national elections. Don't know about you, but that causes me great concern. Why do you think Fox News is so popular? Is it because people who watch it agree with everything on it, or is it because it offers something, a perspective, that hasn't been offered before? As far as opinion journalism you have the right to yours, whether it's supported by facts or not...but, I would reticently remind you that this is ostensibly a Christian publication....

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