Taxpayer-supported public broadcasting is under attack, accused of bias, captured on video in an embarrassing sting (less embarrassing if you view the unedited version), and harder to justify in an era when all government expenditures are on the table and cable and broadband provide almost-infinite outlets for culture and opinion.
So I spoke to an expert: My dad, Newton Minow. Fifty years ago this May, he appeared before the National Association of Broadcasters as the newly appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. His "vast wasteland" speech has been widely anthologized and quoted -- and used as an answer on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. In the subsequent five decades he has continued to work for media in the public interest as the chairman of PBS, a board member at CBS, and founding member of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly has his current thoughts on the state of media today.
Because both he and President Kennedy came to Washington from cities with well-established public broadcasting stations (then called "educational television"), WTTW and WGBH, they were determined to make the same programming available across the country. The day he gave the speech to the NAB he also signed the license for Washington D.C.'s first public television station, WETA.
Here's an edited transcript of my conversation with him.
With hundreds of channels to choose from on television and radio and hundreds of millions of outlets online, why do we need public broadcasting?
Public broadcasting offers a unique service with programs not provided by commercial broadcasting. Sesame Street, Ken Burns' series on the Civil War, Masterpiece Theatre, Live from Lincoln Center, the PBS Newshour, NPR's Morning Edition -- these are examples of public broadcasting's program service which do not exist in advertiser-supported commercial television and radio. Public broadcasting also works uniquely with educational institutions to offer chances to learn every day.
The federal budget is being cut to the bone to address the deficit. How can we justify spending taxpayer dollars on public broadcasting?
All of us should work to reduce federal spending. Cuts should be made for all programs, but what is being proposed now are not cuts -- the proposals are to eliminate and end public broadcasting completely. Current federal support for public broadcasting is about $1.35 per person per year -- or about two cents per person per day. If cuts are made for all federal spending, obviously public broadcasting should share proportionately -- but not be totally destroyed. Current proposals are ideologically based -- not financially based. As I wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:
[W]e need to give greater support to public radio and public television. Both have been starved for funds for decades, and yet in many communities they are essential sources of local news and information--particularly public radio, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute and is a valuable source of professionally reported news for millions of Americans. There is virtually nothing else like it on the air. Public-television stations, as I saw when I was the chairman of PBS, are overbuilt, sometimes with four competing in the same market. Where that is so, stations should be sold and the revenue dedicated to programming a national news and public-affairs service, built on the foundation of the splendid PBS NewsHour. And a crucial part of that service--as with public media around the world--should be to promote the country's arts and culture.Is public broadcasting politically slanted?
Surveys show that public broadcasting is the most trusted news institution in our country. Ralph Rogers, who preceded me as PBS chairman, was a strong Texas Republican; on day when we were testifying in Congress, Ralph Rogers told some members of Congress: "I was a Republican before you were born!" Senator Barry Goldwater was a champion of Sesame Street.
How should NPR respond to the release of the undercover tapes showing fund-raising staff making and agreeing with comments critical of the tea party and other groups? Is firing the CEO enough?
NPR responded quickly and properly to staff misconduct. We all make mistakes -- and we need to correct them promptly -- which NPR did at once.
What do other developed countries do about public broadcasting?
Most established economies spend hundreds of dollars per person per year for public broadcasting. The U.K. Japan, Germany, other European and Asian nations always support their own forms of public broadcasting, led by the BBC in Great Britain and NHK in Japan. They do a great job.