Thursday, February 15, 2007

BBC Model in America?

A lot of public broadcasting supporters look across the pond to state funded journalism and cultural programming. They look at Germany, with its monthly fee subsidy on televison and radio sets; they look at the BBC in Great Britain, and wonder how we could get it so wrong.

They have good reason to think that. Let's face it the state of journalism, and broadcast journalism in particular, is at a low ebb. In a recent conversation with Gary Gilson, soon to be the former head of the Minnesota News Council, he said, "Nobody's interested in doing public service journalism anymore. They [the networks] used to pour money into projects. It's over."

Gilson also isn't upbeat about ongoing foundation support, pointing to the Ford Foundation's short lived interest in public interest international journalism, "making the global local" projects and others. And so again, we turn our heads across the pond, and wonder why we in the United States can't adopt the BBC model.

I'm not totally persuaded by the BBC model. I went to German public schools, I have a fine private, international school high school education, I've summered in the south of England. And there's good broadcasting in western Europe. But it's not all good, even though it's heavily subsidized. So I don't buy the argument that subsidies are the answer.

The other thing about the BBC - and any other western European model - is that if the government chooses, it can forbid them to broadcast material. Such was the case with the BBC, just a month after the 9-11 attacks. Prime Minister Tony Blair summoned, to use the parlance of the British newspapers, the broadcast service executives to Downing Street to ask them not to broadcast tapes of Osama bin Laden. Flash forward to May of 2003: on a tip from a fellow journalist, the BBC's Andrew Gilligan meets with Dr. David Kelly, a scientist critical of evidence suggesting Saddam Hussein was capable of producing WMD's. Gilligan doesn't name Kelly as a source, and the government forces the issue, requiring Gilligan to testify and criticizing the BBC for allowing a story to air with only one source to verify that evidence was cooked up in the case being made to go to war in Iraq. Gilligan coughs up Kelly's name, who eventually kills himself in July of 2003.

The government prevents broadcast of the Hutton inquiry on television or radio into Dr. Kelly's death, and his criticism of the evidence used in the case made for the invasion of Iraq. The BBC complies.

Let my inner Bill O'Reilly come out here: that would never happen in America. The government could not make an order like that and get away with it. However, I will concede this: this same story - the furor over the BBC using one, unnamed source to verify fabrication of evidence to make the case for war, the documents that showed high level government officials doctoring intelligence - never made it into the American press for an entirely different failing of the United States, and its not because we don't subsidize public broadcasting.

It's because American journalism is timid, including public broadcasting. And I would argue that public broadcasting can be especially timid because they are so petrified of losing their precious federal dollars that they won't go out on a limb.

Now you could say, that's an extreme example. And there are plenty of examples where the BBC has done robust reporting, from conflicts in Africa to terrorism in western Europe to domestic issues on the island. But it's those singular instances where the BBC shows it's only as strong as its weakest link, and its weakest link is that when the stakes are high enough, the government will tell them what to do, and they will comply.

I have a problem with that, and I don't see the BBC funding model as a panacea for the woes of American journalism. There are too many string attached. There are already strings attached for National Public Radio as the news arm for Voice of America. I have a problem with censorship, even if it happens very rarely. It's never OK for the government to tell an independent press what to say or do, and to say you're independent and comply with the government's orders is hypocritical.

After some reading, I'll post soon about different ideas about freedom of speech. Apparently, not even Americans really believe in the 1st Amendment. Sigh.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Stroking the Public Radio Ego

Being the lone radio person in a group of newspaper fogies, I'm finding myself amused by at once the deference, but also sad, comments sent the way of public broadcasting.

On one hand, my print colleagues appreciate the artistic value of radio and audio; on the other, they lament the inability of public broadcasting to financially support as extensive a news network of reporters and editors as newspapers do.

The most public version of this discussion came out when McClatchy announced it would immediately sell the Pioneer Press in Saint Paul, after acquiring it in one of the biggest newspapers sales from Knight Ridder. The e-democracy folks in the Twin Cities, certain the Twin Cities was doomed to becoming a one paper town, floated the idea of the state's largest public broadcaster to purchase the paper. Minnesota Public Radio has a many multi-million dollar budget, buys and sells radio real estate with the help of low cost loans and good standing in credit: why not buy a paper?

As many pointed out in the posts following the idea, the nonprofit may be able to pull off a 12 million dollar acquisition (as it did with the purchase of St. Olaf's WCAL in Northfield), but HALF A BILLION? It's a lot to ask, even the wealthy, and well-endowed Minnesota Public Radio.

But there are other reasons why I wouldn't recommend public broadcasting's hand in the newspaper business. The Americans who do support public broadcasting want the national stuff: All Things Considered, Fresh Air with Terri Gross. Local news production, on the scale of Minnesota Public Radio, is almost unheard of at an NPR affiliate. The bulk of their budgets go to National Public Radio or Public Radio International to purchase programming, rather than investing in local programming.

To me, that lack of investment in local programming shows an unwillingness to try new things, which newspapers in their heyday were known for. That's the exception, not the rule in the small world of public broadcasting. They are so careful, so fearful of pissing off potential donors, current donors, foundations, they wouldn't touch it. Fo Shizzle.

That doesn't mean public broadcasting can't change. But it's an insular culture that doesn't like outsiders coming in, telling them how they can do better work. And so little of public broadcasting is devoted to actual journalism, that it would take an infusion of newspaper talent to turn the small reporting ships of NPR affiliates into the strong, shrill shrieks of Washington policymakers calling for an end to public broadcasting funds.

Don't get me wrong; I love my American public broadcasting. I give money. I defend it's mission. I'm grateful. But I'm also painfully aware of its shortcomings. It's like my parents. I love them, but I also know I can't get everything I need, or even want from them.