Critics of sleaze, sex and violence in movies, music and the media have given public broadcasters their best chance yet to make a positive case for the value of public broadcasting to American society.
In contrast to the anything-goes-as-long-as-it-makes-money values of some commercial media, public broadcasters have a compelling story to tell. It is a story of high standards and public-service journalism, even though public broadcasting also has been under attack, the most serious since it was established by Congress in 1967.
In making the case for National Public Radio and its 530 member stations, a number of key reasons illustrate how NPR gives society valuable things that are not available elsewhere, despite more than 9,000 commercial radio stations across the country.
One reason why the nation needs public radio, and that makes NPR distinctive, is that we have the luxury of time to explain issues and ideas.
In-depth reporting takes time, both on and off the air. As a democracy we depend on accurate information. We know an informed and knowledgeable citizenry is needed for successful self-government. In order to understand complex issues, ideas and events, we need context, background, history, and most of all analysis — we need to know the why and the how, not just the who, what, where and when.
Oversimplification has become a disease of modern broadcasting. NPR devotes extra air time to our reports so they are more than headline summaries. It takes time on the air to clarify issues. Ten-second sound bites sometimes only add to the confusion. On Weekend Edition Saturday recently, Scott Simon reported on the 50th anniversary of the death of Anne Frank. It was a 40-minute report, which took more than four months to produce. It has also become one of our most requested tape cassettes.
A second distinction for NPR is that we demand good writing and use authentic voices.
Writing for the ear is everything on radio. A strong narrative line carries a good story and makes for irresistible listening. NPR reports are written, edited, and then rewritten and reedited to make them more lucid, more literate. Our aim is to use language carefully. We try to hire people who can write, and think; how they talk is less important. We shy away from personality cults built around a fresh face, a fancy hairdo, or a booming voice: what we want is to hear from people who have something to say, and their natural way of saying it is okay.
Many listeners will recall the voice of Kim Williams from Missoula, and Red Barber. You can now hear Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans, or Bailey White in Georgia, or Baxter Black in Texas — great writers and storytellers all. Listeners may also remember a couple of kids from Chicago who produced an award-winning radio documentary called “Ghetto Life 101.” None of these people are stars in the television sense, but our audience knows them and knows more about America because of them.
A third reason NPR is distinctive is that we strive for solid content based on high standards.
Because of competition for ratings in commercial broadcasting, entertainment values now influence much of the commercial news media. The new term is “tabloidization.” Bill Kovach, the curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, has pointed out that entertainment values lead to sensationalism, hype, brevity, conflict, urgency, action and immediacy. Why? Because they sell. And a reliance on ratings leads commercial broadcasters to give people what they want, not what they need to know.
By contrast, NPR tries to put content at the center of our value system. What do people need to know? We know our audience is intelligent and we assume they care about making our democracy function better. Again, we know a democratic society cannot function without solid information, so we start with fact-based journalism. Parts of our news programs are also entertaining, to be sure, but there is a seriousness of purpose in much of what we do. We believe talking heads can be valuable, not boring, if they have something to say.
A few recent awards illustrate the point that NPR today is setting standards in American broadcast journalism. This year, NPR reporters, editors and producers have won just about every major broadcast journalism award, including the Peabody, DuPont-Columbia, Robert F. Kennedy, Overseas Press Club, Congressional and White House Correspondents Association.
A final reason is that we at NPR are proud of our public service mandate and we take it seriously.
Perhaps the greatest distinction between NPR and the commercial media springs from a difference in our basic purposes. As Daniel Schorr likes to say, the thing to remember about commercial broadcasting is that it’s about commerce. NPR’s mission on the other hand is public service: to inform and educate; to try to make the complex coherent, to challenge conventional wisdom, to tell a diversity of human stories that define and enlighten our era. We address our listeners as citizens, not as consumers. NPR News programs have relatively large audiences, but these programs are not profit centers, and we do not exist primarily to bring a mass audience to hear an advertiser’s message.
If public broadcasting is not subsidized, but commercialized as some are urging, six or eight minutes of commercials in every half hour of All Things Considered, or Barney & Friends, for that matter, will fundamentally change these programs. They won’t be the same because their bottom line reason for being won’t be the same: their purpose will no longer be to educate but to sell products. I strongly believe we should keep the public role in public broadcasting–not because I want to protect a special interest, but in order to preserve a public service.
Commercial broadcasters make billions of dollars each year using the public’s airwaves. They pay not a penny to the public for this privilege. It strikes me as a sensible idea that a tiny portion of those commercial profits, or a small tax on the sale of commercial licenses, be placed in a trust fund for public broadcasting. Public service journalism is thus preserved and American society along with a growing worldwide audience benefits.
But for this idea, or some other, to work, Congress will have to recognize there is value in preserving public broadcasting. That is the bottom line of this year’s long, drawn-out debate. Actually, I think one of the things Congress and all of us have learned so far is that the public does value public broadcasting. Many thousands of people have written to their members of Congress to say they want a small part of their taxes to support public TV and public radio. In the battle to uphold cultural standards, and uplift and inform a more tolerant society, public broadcasting is indispensable.
A new book about Eric Sevareid describes the CBS tradition of Edward R. Murrow as a tradition in which “news broadcasting had a noble purpose: to educate and inform, more than to entertain and make money.” I believe that this is the value NPR and public broadcasting embody today, and one which continues to merit public and private support.