An apparent glutton for wonkery, I sat glued to an all-day Internet feed of the FCC workshop, “Public and Other Noncommercial Media in the Digital Era” last Friday, April 30. (You can scan a live blog of the proceedings on PBS Mediashift. Or go back and replay the video on the FCC "Future of Media" website.)
Bill Buzenberg of the Center for Public Integrity and Nan Rubin of The Prometheus Radio Project testify during the FCC workshop on Noncommercial Media in the Digital Era.
The FCC is on a tear these days to enact Obama era reforms in the digital universe. The FCC's oversight of the electromagnetic spectrum gives it plenty of say -- certainly with broadcasters -- though its role in broadband networks is still a work in progress. One such initiative is its "Future of Media" report that will soon go to the president and congress.
Accordingly, the public media workshop at FCC headquarters, as one of the 30 panelists put it, was "the most extensive re-examination of public broadcasting" since its founding.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski sent his able aide Steven Waldman to preside over the proceedings. Waldman was joined by Ellen Goodman (not the columnist, but a fellow at American University's Center for Social Media). Waldman affirmed that this was a time of sweeping possibilities for American media. "Everything is on the table," he said.
"Everything is on the table," said FCC Senior Advisor Steven Waldman.
Photo: FCC Website
I kept scanning Waldman's table for what's being served to journalists. As we know, local news often gets shoved under the table and kicked to the dogs.
As it turns out, there were some tasty offerings in sizable portions.Who Said What I Wanted to Hear
While most of the day was a philosophical debate on the purpose and means of public media in the post-broadcast age (i.e., "public broadcasting picks up where the commercial marketplace fails"), it was also lobbying for "plussing up" the federal allocation via the CPB. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, created by Congress to distribute federal funds to U.S. public radio and television stations.)
Still, some news about news was committed. CPB CEO Pat Harrison announced there will be funding soon for an investigative reporting initiative, and also new funding to support Public Insight Journalism projects (that make systematic use of citizens in deeper news research). This, of course, comes atop the recent $10 million launch of the Local Journalism Centers by CPB.
One of the most thrilling spates of testimony came from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger (Right). I don't recall seeing him at any public radio conferences, but there he was calling for a vast makeover of public broadcasting to put it on global footing with the BBC. He even named it, "The American World Service," a la its British counterpart.
President Bollinger brushed aside questions of political interference in government-subsidized media organizations, calling those fears "overblown." To him, proof is in our public pudding. Public media journalism, he said, is among "the best in the country," and deserves greater support. Amen, sir.
Local broadcasters were actually in short supply in this FCC workshop, but the biggest local guy of all was there. Bill Kling, master and commander of Minnesota Public Radio called for some radical changes in the CPB. "News," Kling said, "is our last, best hope for public broadcasting." He said CPB needs to create incentives to grow strong local news organizations. (A license and four full-time hires is all CPB asks now.)
"News is our last, best hope for public broadcasting."-- Bill Kling
Kling also warned of weak leadership and parent institutions (universities, in particular) who siphon off funding and distort station missions. (Download Bill_Kling_Testimony_April_30_2010)
The bosses of PBS and NPR, Paula Kerger and Vivian Schiller, underscored the importance of news on public media. While Kerger couldn't claim vibrant action on the local TV level (there's not enough money, she stated bluntly), Schiller picked up the slack and pressed the point that developing the next iteration of the public radio news system would require "focusing on local" -- and require "partnerships and innovation."
Schiller and others also touted plans to create a common platform for public media content distribution -- our own "pipes" and "cloud," according to PRX chief Jake Shapiro.
Heroes, Goats and Wobbly Moments
There were moments when I stood and saluted my monitor:
SRG Co-CEO Terry Clifford didn't pound the journalism drum but she put in a strong bid for the local stations as important system staples, asserting our system has "proven systems" and "established infrastructure." We just need money! And, she said, it would help an awful lot if congress, White House, CPB and FCC could get "in sync."
Jan Schaffer of J-Lab rocked the status quo when she called for renaming the CPB the CPM -- Corp for Pub Media. She said to fund it with a tax on phones, laptops and other media devices. Provide money for start-ups and tax breaks for news organizations. She even suggested donors to non-profit news sites get a DOUBLE deduction on their taxes. Brilliant. (Here's a link to Schaffer's remarks.)
Craig Aaron of Free Press should be a Murrow Award winner or something. He said " this discussion comes at a critical juncture for public media: We have a journalism crisis. We have an historic opportunity. And we shouldn't let either go to waste."
Aaron laid out at least five ways to generate revenues to support a public media trust fund. If the US supported public media, on a per capita basis equal to Sweden or Norway, we'd be spending $30 billion a year on public media. (CPB gets a paltry $400 million.) Check out the Free Press argument here.
James O'Shea, founder of the Chicago News Cooperative. Get this guy to the next PRNDI conference. He's why we need more newspaper refugees into the pub media tent: he is all about accountability journalism on the local level. And damn straight government has a role in encouraging it.
David Fanning, Frontline, when he said the web changes everything because it accrues curated content over time. And we don't want commercialism to degrade this work. You can be local and dig that.
James Hamilton, Duke Professor (Public Policy), when he said we must not conflate impact with audience. Journalism of our sort might not be in high demand, and might be costly, but a society based on voting requires public service information. It serves the Need to Know.
"We must not conflate impact with audience" -- James HamiltonThere were other moments when I grimaced or cringed.
His name is Randolph May (President, Free State Foundation) but I kept calling him "The Tea Party Guy" because he's right up their alley. Still, despite his call for a CPB "exit strategy," most folks at the hearing would agree when he said, "the more attenuated the government support is, the more comfortable I become."
What's up with Eric Newton, VP for Journalism Programs at the Knight Foundation? You get the impression someone at NPR or PBS pissed him off once because all his comments seemed like veiled criticism of public media journalism. Despite all the laudatory remarks made by others about Knight's support, Mr. Newton chastised public media for not jumping at the Knight News Challenge (starter grants to promote community journalism efforts) (Or was it for not winning them? Could this be a problem of grant criteria?) He seemed to imply that public media wasn't interested in growing new platforms.
When asked what would happen if the Knight projects no longer received his philanthropic support, Mr. Newton conceded that "90% would fail." Well, there you go, man. Welcome to our world.
This may have been "as impressive a group as we have ever assembled here" (according to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in his remarks), but the answer-givers weren't always prepared for the tough questions.Wobbly Moments:
When Pat Harrison (Current file photo, right) was asked how strong is public media's firewall -- between political pressure on one side and editorial independence on the other -- she said it came down to having a strong CPB CEO. (She's from Brooklyn, after all.) How reassuring!
(Harrison ought to have said this is an opportunity to take politics out of CPB and reform the political-appointee system that allows the party in power to have the deciding vote on the CPB board. Unlikely perhaps as she herself was hired during the Bush years when the CPB board was ruled by the controversial Kenneth Tomlinson, who was later excoriated by an Inspector General for meddling in content.)
When J-Lab boss Jan Schaffer was pressed on how the public gets some assurance of journalistic neutrality and balance among all the community start-ups she champions, her response left scratches on my head. First, she said, when it comes to objectivity, it's true they have "an attached objectivity." (Is that like Fox newscasters?) Besides she went on, you judge them on their track record. (Huh? Weren't we just talking about start-ups?)
To me, public broadcasters did a good job affirming the principles by which we have served the American public more than 40 years -- yet agreeing with the premise that the model must change. In particular, there's a steady push for ventures into new platforms and new audiences yet building upon the trusted system in place.
If you're a public journalist who has slaved over a hot tape deck for many of those years, you have to appreciate the moment we're in right now. The technology is fantastic. The need for local news is strong. And somehow the pendulum has swung back to allow community service + mission to carry the argument for financial support.