Hundt: System needs openness of 4 kinds

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Attorney and former FCC chairman Reed Hundt , a co-chair of the PBS-appointed Digital Future Initiative, previewed his thinking in a Current commentary seven months before the panel issued its recommendations at the end of 2005. See also Co-chair James Barksdale’s commentary.

Hundt, co-chair of the Digital Future Initiative, speaks at its December 2004 meeting. (Photo: Current.)

Jim Barksdale said at the very first meeting of the Digital Future Initiative that one thing that he learned in his different business successes is that the main thing is to make the main thing always be the main thing.

I’m going to try to do that today by telling you the main thing on my mind after working for months with our distinguished panel and bringing in lots of other people to talk to us.

I’ll tell you straight from the shoulder: I think public broadcasting is in one of those slowly developing, hard-to-spot situations that is, in fact, a real crisis.

The American people desperately want a public broadcasting system. They want it to be an open forum. They want to maintain their historic trust in public broadcasting. But they are wondering if the people in the system will meet the threats with the necessary resistance.

For public broadcasting to be an open forum, I have in my mind four kinds of openness:

  • keeping the doors open, continuing in operation;
  • being open to experiments with content;
  • being open to the new challenges of technology; and
  • being open to discovering the truth and debating it in public.

So let’s turn to the first of these, keeping the doors open. In a public park, somebody has to pay to clean the walkways. In a public library, somebody has to buy new books, and a public university has to pay its faculty and build its laboratories. To keep public broadcasting’s doors open, it needs money. If public broadcasting stays on its current path, it will not be able to keep the doors open for much longer.

Public broadcasting cannot make plans at any level — stations or network — that are commensurate with the demands of the new digital era. It can’t be confident, with the vagaries of congressional appropriations and fund drives, that it really can keep the doors open. It needs those appropriations and fund drives, but it can’t be so dependent on them. It needs to have some serious, consistent way to be sure it can keep the doors open.

The second kind of openness is that public broadcasting needs to be open to the development of new kinds of content and experimentation. All of that costs money. And public broadcasting will not be really willing to try new things while it’s worried about making money from these new things.

So both these goals — literally keeping the doors open and engaging in new product development — require new sources of funding.

My own view is that an endowment is necessary. It ought to be private, independent, managed professionally. It should try to beat the stock market and produce a big and growing source of income for public broadcasting. That’s the kind of endowment they have at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and numerous other institutions. It should be independent of political opinion and politicians. It should be an independent endowment that grows over time.

We also need a third kind of openness: openness to technology and its constant change. Public broadcasting should aspire to be the noncommercial content in iPods, in satellite radios, on laptops, in wifi mesh networks and on cable systems and DSL and digital broadcast stations. It must aim for its noncommercial content to be the jewel in the crown of our society, no matter who receives that content or what technology delivers it.

Achieving that kind of openness will require new thinking between stations and networks. I want to be really direct about this. I have witnessed a lot of conversations between station and networks that are like the classic discussion about the pie: who’s going to get how big a slice. I’m saying we need a new oven and a new recipe. We need to be making totally different kinds of goods. And if we can all find a way to do that, we’ll have so much more opportunity that those past discussions about slicing a little pie will be nothing but an old family joke.

That gets me to the fourth kind of openness. Public broadcasting needs to be open to any and all points of view. I think we want public broadcasting to be about finding facts and debating them from as many rational points of view as can be found. The topics should be intelligent design and evolution; Christian marriage and civil union; heterosexuals and gays; choice and the effort to overturn Roe v. Wade; taxation and tax-cutting; staying in Iraq and pulling out the troops. The points of view should be from the left and the right, from the public sector and the private sector, from buyers and sellers, from Americans and from non-Americans. We should want churches to use some public broadcasting spectrum; we should want some agnostic science professors to use some public broadcasting spectrum.

This is nothing more than the principle of tolerance. I think you must already know that principle, from time to time, runs into disapproval from figures in government, and they are not always from the same political party.

Of course, every political leader is entitled to a point of view. Having a point of view ought to be a criterion for holding public office, provided it is sincere. Hypocrisy is not a virtue, but having a point of view is a good thing.

On the other hand, as Americans fight and die for freedom around the globe, none of us should compel others to accept a point of view. No one in the government should ever contend that the public airwaves should transmit only one point of view. Those airwaves ought to be as open as our ideal of America is open for the whole world to embrace.

We may have different views about Iraq or Social Security, about women’s rights or the culture of life, but we should all feel the same way about openness in America: confident that America will find the right path when society can openly discuss truth and falsehood, right and wrong, problems and solutions, and good and bad ways for the country to go.

I don’t think the American people would find anything controversial in what I’m saying here, and that is why I believe—I’m just speaking for myself—that the public wants public broadcasting to put itself on the frontline of the battle for free speech and tolerance in America.

I want to add two qualifications: A point of view that consists of hatred and advocates violence cannot be tolerated, because it is the sworn enemy of tolerance. Second, an open medium does not give equal time to lies as well as truth, to madness as well as sanity, to irrationality as well as rationality, to wild accusation as well as reasonable defense. Those balances are the negation of clear thinking. Like plus one and minus one, they produce nothing.

I don’t think anyone in America wants your public affairs programming to become another version of cable news. As Jon Stewart illustrated with his smack down of Crossfire, we should want that format to go to its grave. I think the American public knows that the commercial media won’t do what I’ve just talked about. I think the public wants public broadcasting to play an even bigger role in the discovery of facts and conducting reasonable debate about the meaning and consequences of those facts.

We are all aware that American discourse today is as uncivil as it has been in many a year. Accusations, insults and dark threats are hurled over matters that—you would think—deserve reasoned discussion. It sometimes seems, as the poet said, that the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. In this environment, anyone would be tempted to compromise, to accommodate, to go along in order to get along. Frankly, if you’re dependent on the government for money, you do have reason to fear the risks of telling the truth.

But I think a bigger fear might be this: If public broadcasting is not an open and tolerant medium, if it is not where you can find the facts, if it is not where reason has a hearing and a viewing, it will lose the trust of the American people. If public broadcasting is not a forum for truth and open debate, the public—sooner rather than later—won’t want to see its tax dollars support that system.

When the drumbeat of political anxiety is heard, I believe the best strategy for public broadcasting is what the late pope said to the people of Poland: “Do not be afraid.” The American people do not want Congress or anyone in the government to shut down public broadcasting; they do not want it closed to differing points of view.

The burden is on public broadcasting not to be typecast as liberal or conservative, blue or red, left or right; the duty is to be open. If that is what public broadcasting tries to be, we should trust the people. The American people will support the openness of free speech; you need only tell them what is at stake. And you more than anyone know how to do that.

Hundt, a communications attorney and co-chairman of the Digital Future Initiative for public TV, served as FCC chairman from 1993 to 1997, during the Clinton administration.

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