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Public broadcasting is ‘the third way’


In his Rocky Mountain News column of May 4, “The unfairness doctrine,” Mike Rosen asked whether there was an alternative to either private-sector media or government-run media. Well, yes, Mike, there is an alternative, and a very significant one at that: public broadcasting, which occupies the rich middle ground, the “third way,” between the marketplace and the state.

The public-service model is a well-developed and central part of the media culture in all other advanced democracies. It would be in the U.S. too, if it weren’t for the continuing misrepresentations of it as nothing but “state media” and for the claims about how the private, commercially-based system can deliver all aspects of the public interest.

Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of the old Fairness Doctrine, but the reality is that in the current climate of nearly total deregulation it is highly unlikely that the doctrine will be reinstituted, and most of its opponents know that. The phony fairness doctrine debate and the hand-wringing about governmental censorship is used to distract public discourse from consideration of the no less serious censorship by the marketplace. It also helps avoid communications policy arguments for substantive, public-media structural alternatives to the commercial system.

And to lump PBS and NPR into a category of “corporate media” that includes ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN is ludicrous. It represents a new low in the talking-points process by which the conservative and libertarian think tanks manage the public debate not only about public broadcasting, but all of public culture and any notion of tax-based support for it.

Altogether, corporate broadcasting and cable in the U.S. yield about $150 billion annually. By contrast the total budget of all of public radio and television is less than $2 billion, with only about a quarter of that for PBS and NPR together. To try to link those small organizations in any serious way to the resources, ownership patterns and control mechanisms of the huge, ratings-based, profit-oriented commercial system is disingenuous.

The demise of serious news in commercial radio since the advent of deregulation, that is, of anything deeply engaging of political, social and cultural issues, is readily documented. The way NPR and the public radio system have filled that gap should be a source of great pride, not snide derision, among informed pundits.

The same goes for public television. To pretend that the commercial television regimens of weather, sports, accidents and crime constitute adequate local news, or that advertising-supported cable channels playing endless repeats of Big Technology projects, crab-fishing perils and World War II air battles are adequate replacements for PBS’ thoughtful, continuously new work in history, science, nature, performance, children’s programming and public affairs is patently absurd.

That we can know anything substantive about the world beyond the U.S. borders and that we have any opportunity in U.S. broadcasting and cable to understand the complexities of the universe — physical, social and political — is a testimony primarily to the hard, dedicated work of public broadcasters.

That public radio and television could do much more along the lines of their older, counterpart institutions abroad, there is no doubt. But those societies situate their public-service broadcasting institutions at the heart of their media cultures. As a result, they have funded their public broadcasting systems at much, much higher levels than what we provide in the U.S.

Sure, they fight about them all the time; the debates about political balance and interference are strong in all those nations. But when push comes to shove, the public media charters are renewed and their funding arrangements regularly ratified, because the citizens — the voters — in country after country know that it is necessary for informed democracies to have a strong media component that is not hostage to the censorship of commerce. Concern about that form of interference and how to avoid it is at least as worthy of debate as the Fairness Doctrine.

Willard D. “Wick” Rowland Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO of Colorado Public Television, KBDI-Channel 12, and is dean and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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