Op-ed: WBEZ’s Malatia says public media must revitalize open, civic discourse in our communities

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“A press independent of the conversation of culture, or existing in the absence of such a conversation, is likely to be . . . a menace to public life and an effective politics.” — James W. Carey

When the Radio Research Consortium releases its periodic eRANKS, public radio programmers in communities all over the country examine them as report cards on their stations’ audience service. This is the big score of their performance relative to other markets.

But the true measure of effectiveness of our public media institutions is not found in an infograph derived from Arbitron ratings. As sociologist Michael Schudson reminds us, our effectiveness is best reflected in our contributions to facilitating an inclusive public discourse in our communities.

As part of its 2010-11 news series on juvenile detention, WBEZ convened a public event where community members could share their experiences and insights. (Photo: Richard Cahan)

In a pluralistic America, public media is a central resource for promoting inclusiveness in civic engagement. This misson-based role has become even more important in today’s broadcast and digital media environment, in which content is tailored exclusively to audiences based on their ideology and beliefs.

Evidence of the divisiveness of civic dialogue in the media pounded on WBEZ’s door last month. I hope this account of the decision we made, and the philosophies behind it, will benefit our public media colleagues.
Whenever a public radio station removes a regularly scheduled program from its lineup, the staff can expect to hear from listeners upset by the decision.

Such was the case at WBEZ when we chose not to renew our annual purchase of Smiley & West, a weekly news program from Public Radio International. A major factor in our decision was a significant, steady decline in audience for the one-hour broadcast. Over 18 months the program’s cumulative audience declined by two-thirds, while the programs surrounding it remained stable.

But there was another overarching concern that influenced our evaluation of Smiley & West. A couple of years ago, the show was reframed from public radio’s typical open-dialogue approach — in this case, on topical social and political issues — to a framework of what I consider advocacy journalism.

I am among those who believe that complete objectivity in journalism and public affairs is humanly impossible, but I reject the notion that public media should veer into advocacy. Granted, in some cases journalists who reveal their personal views often seed or reframe the public’s discussion in a new way. As long as the journalist’s contribution supports the public dialogue that allows the community to reach an evolved outcome, he or she plays a role in facilitating the democratic process.

But advocacy journalism elevates the voice of one citizen — that of the journalist — and frames the discussion with the intent of persuading the community to agree with the journalist’s desired outcome, whether it has real value or not.

To me, “advocacy journalism” is an unhappy meeting of two words, the second word dragged along by the first to get a better table. In the case of this particular program, the mismatched couple favored fare on the left side of the political menu.

We did approach PRI about the program’s eroding audience in Chicago and our concerns that the declines were linked to the editorial shift of Smiley & West. In our view, any news or commentary program should reflect public media’s signature for open and fair dialogue of competing ideas. A program that concentrates on issues in a singular way — rejecting ideas or opinions to the contrary — doesn’t fit with our standards. Smiley & West was moving in this direction, examining issues in the public dialogue within an increasingly closed universe of agreement.

Our recommendation that producers evaluate whether the program was dogmatic in ways that turned off the audience was distorted, and producers mounted a write-in campaign accusing me of censoring views “in the interest of balance.”

This accusation was wholeheartedly embraced by the outraged, some of whom proposed that we change our standards for balance. Others wrote that a left-leaning program such as Smiley & West represents the heart of the editorial mission of public media. These writers believe that public radio should promote leftist ideology to “balance” the public’s indoctrination by right-leaning corporate-controlled media.

One listener suggested that we balance Smiley & West by adding “some equally vociferous right-wing program.” By broadcasting them back-to-back, each could refute any lies or truths promoted by the other.
The logic of these proposals eluded us. Those who wrote to us seemed to be arguing that we should shoot journalism in the chest to balance those who had been shooting it in the back.

Balance is a subjective value and an impractical metric. An editor who employs it as a measurement of news reporting would be as frustrated as a chef describing the flavor of air. You can’t calculate communication and argument in their nuance with algebraic precision.

The hard work of public media journalism for the next few years is to counteract the partisanship of news media and reverse public passivity by refocusing journalism on civic discourse.

We have become so accustomed to being “informed” by partisanship packaged in journalistic attire that we expect little more. We are so conditioned to being attentive to ideologically obsessed commentators, analysts and “experts” consuming massive volumes of oxygen on American broadcast media, cable channels and online that we’ve forgotten that these familiar personalities represent only a handful of the citizen voices that should be heard in daily discourse. We have unknowingly licensed these few use of our rightful function in democracy.

Citizens in our republic were intended to be actors, not just responders; they should never be content to be consumers of ideas; they have the authority and responsibility to be authors of them.

The hard work of public media journalism for the next few years is to counteract the partisanship of news media and reverse public passivity by refocusing journalism on civic discourse.

To restore meaningful journalism that amplifies and supports the public agenda and democracy, we must better understand how to connect with our communities and how a community functions. Too frequently, our editorial planning is driven by our journalists’ personal interests and the content of competing news companies. This must change. In editorial meetings, the agenda we set for coverage should directly relate to the issues that citizens have identified as important to them. And we can do this only by opening up multiple avenues for connecting with the community — in person, online and on-air. We can use our professional editorial judgment to broaden the public debate by encouraging more and different voices to speak up. By doing so, we support universal involvement among citizens.

In the process, it is always important to stay humble. After all, journalism is the many speaking for themselves.

The real Daily Planet

Journalists and their employers tend to embrace concepts of their profession that have been perpetuated by Hollywood. As with most things portrayed in the movies, the realities of journalism today are not so picture-perfect. Tides of technological change have fragmented news audiences, cut short careers of talented reporters and raised alarms that the profession is on the verge of extinction. Yet the myths popularized by Hollywood live on.

A journalist’s role is to serve the public in dialogue, Malatia says.

Take, for example, the false construct underlying all the others — that the journalist serves as democracy’s savior. It’s no coincidence that Superman’s day job was newspaperman.

This myth posits that the objective of journalism is not to support the public’s agenda but to set the agenda for public discourse. In other words, to champion ideas, to lead the masses to truth.

There are certainly journalists who have served the public interest heroically by bringing previously obscured facts into the civic conversation. The central tenets of journalism are integral to earning public credibility — verification of facts and comprehensive research about historical, social and political contexts. Most importantly, journalists must have extraordinary capabilities to use the tools of communication to effectively represent ideas, actions and issues.

But journalism’s goal and responsibility is not one of leadership, but of service — to follow and help support public conversation. Practitioners and theorists from Edward R. Murrow to Jay Rosen have made the same observations: In a democracy, journalists take direction from citizens.

In this public-centered conception of journalism, the profession is dominated not by telling, but by listening. In the process of observing the public discourse, journalists make professional judgments about the patterns of current discussion and what appears to have salience in the democracy at that moment. Then their task is to support the ongoing public discourse, serving the needs of the conversation — verifying and helping to interpret the facts that are essential to a shared understanding of the matter discussed.

Journalists should not abduct the discourse. On the contrary, they should devote themselves to supporting an environment of inclusiveness that provides an open stage for differences — making way for the participation of even the most taciturn citizens.

Conversational democracy

In refocusing journalism on supporting public discourse, there is no better place to start than the concept of “conversational democracy” described in the work of the late political scientist Iris Marion Young. Professor Young, who taught at the University of Chicago, is probably best known for her research on feminist policy issues. Her work in that area led her to look at deliberative democratic theories and how they worked in the increased polyculturalism of a changing America.

Young noticed that in any multicultural and multieconomic community of individuals, those citizens who have authority, civic status or facility with argument have an advantage in civic discourse. Thus, even in a setting of community problem-solving, those whose opinions differ significantly from those who dominate the discussion, or whose life experiences are unfamiliar to the majority, are effectively excluded. Those in the minority hold back — or are held back — because the demand for agreement implies simplifying considerations, not complicating deliberating.

For civic discourse in a pluralistic society to be successful, resolution must be delayed until universal participation — inclusiveness — is all but total. This may prolong discourse, but it provides an atmosphere in which communication is embraced as a true right. Equal respect is given to all participants; all are allowed to talk; all are required to listen.

Inclusiveness creates the environment in which difference is seen a resource for richer debate and better solutions because they have been crafted to serve more of the community. To Young, only “by hearing from differently situated knowledge” can civic discourse add “to the knowledge of all participants.”

This is why public media journalism will forfeit its greatest promise if it turns to advocacy journalism, or to fighting perceived ideological fire with opposing ideological fire.

Inclusiveness in journalism brings forward the notion that difference is an asset to decision-making. And it demonstrates inclusiveness by being a place where every person served feels that journalists seek to sincerely represent the lens through which she or he views human experience.

Serving the public’s agenda

At WBEZ, these concepts of journalism have reshaped our identity and how we must strive to serve the public. The ethos behind all the journalism we provide can be distilled to this: Our community identifies its news agenda; we commit to serving it. As a local public media institution, our responsibility extends to all in our region.

The FCC’s atypically lucid mandate demands this posture from public media institutions, whether or not we have newsrooms: “Broadcasting stations are licensed to serve the public and not for the purpose of furthering the private or selfish interests of individuals or groups of individuals. . . . The entire listening public [italics in original] within the service area of a station, or group of stations in one community, is entitled to service from that station or stations.”

Guidance on how well we meet these our principles is continually drawn from our staff, board and advisory council, but the community itself determines the specifics of our work through interactive media, community meetings in our neighborhood bureaus, our media literacy training programs — in short, direct, broad, incessant communication. While we’ve designed these principles to facilitate the evolving conversation in our community, these fundamentals can be shaped to serve any community-based public media institution.

Public media journalists should be among democracy’s insatiable seekers of inclusiveness, bringing into the civic conversation differences that richly complicate the argument. Our job is to find as many voices as we can of those who might disagree, who differ in their life experiences, circumstances, race, ethnicity, beliefs, economic circumstances and social values.

The conversation must invite, make welcome, attend to and be transformed by the community’s many, not a few. In this way, citizens work through their differences to make their own reality in a democracy.
Journalists help them listen to each other, and help all be listened to.

As chief executive of Chicago Public Media since 1996, Torey Malatia led the expansion of local news programming on WBEZ and spearheaded development of Vocalo, a hybrid FM/digital media service. He has lectured extensively about public media’s role as a public trust, and serves on the boards of the Public Radio Exchange and the Station Resource Group.

14 thoughts on “Op-ed: WBEZ’s Malatia says public media must revitalize open, civic discourse in our communities

  1. “Too frequently, our editorial planning is driven by our journalists’ personal interests and the content of competing news companies. This must change. In editorial meetings, the agenda we set for coverage should directly relate to the issues that citizens have identified as important to them.”
    What many citizens identify as important to them, though, is just what competing news companies (public media, too) have already told them is (or should be) important to them.
    When most political/media celebrities reach consensus on *what the most important issues are* — even if they argue vehemently among themselves within the narrow range of arguments that they deem “serious” or permissable — are there valid and practical ways of filtering that noise out of what citizens identify as topics or issues that really are important to them?

  2. Ridiculous. They are effetive communicators whos point of view IS absolutely valid for furthering the discussion. I learned every time I tuned in. To deprive listeners of those voices, for the less than 1% of WBEZ airtime is silly at best and vindictive at worst. C’mon…the pressure from somewhere got to you to make that decision.

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  11. Torey Malatia covers a lot of ground. Some points in response:

    (1) On the narrow question of ratings. As Tavis Smiley himself said, the show itself was put in a lousy time — Sunday afternoon, right around the time when its most likely audience (churchgoing blacks and Latinos) would be in church unable to listen to the show. Many suspect, for good reason, that the show may have been placed there by WBEZ to die, and falling ratings can be used as a rationalization for killing the show.

    (2) Journalism and redundancy. Malatia here is making a false distinction. Journalism (or at least the better side of journalism) is itself _inherently_ a matter of advocacy — fourth estate as a check on power, digging up stuff that people want hidden, that sort of thing. Is Watergate advocacy journalism? The Pentagon Papers? Wikileaks?

    (3) Contradictions. You don’t “contributions to facilitating an inclusive public discourse in our communities”, by cancelling a show that’s all about facilitating an inclusive public discourse in our communities, especially where the 99% don’t get anywhere near 99% of airtime (and on public radio no less).

    (4) Foisting “inclusiveness” to avoid class warfare. WBEZ is afraid of getting its hands dirty, and that’s understandable. Considering the precarious financial position of public media, where WBEZ and public radio generally have to appeal to the 1% (or at the very to listeners with expendable income for 20% to 60% of their annual budget), the longstanding relative spinelessness of public media (with a small number of exceptions) is well known and well understood. It’s understandable, but it’s _not_ inexcusable. I’m sorry, but this is war — the 1% versus the 99%, where populations suffer in the U.S. and worldwide under the heel of institutions who, as we’ve seen with Hurricane Sandy and climate change, are putting the very fate of humanity/civilization at risk. Trying to sidestep this fact it by heralding the banner of “inclusiveness in journalism” and “universal participation” is avoiding the necessary obligations to help the most needy among us and the systemic reasons behind that fact.

    (5) Ignoring public input. “The community itself determines the specifics of our work” Hilarious. Groups I’ve been a part of, and plenty of folks besides, have spent years urging public media institutions like WBEZ to carry Democracy Now!, to no avail. (If WBEZ were to syndicate “This Is Hell” instead, that could work as a suitable alternative.) I remember calling Torey Malatia on his private office line in 2005 about WBEZ carrying “Democracy Now!” and his main reason for not doing so was that the show was “so advocacy” (gosh, where have I heard that line?).

    (6) Saving face. Given the blowback that Malatia has faced in Chicago and in the larger public media community over the Smiley/West controversy, this very op-ed could be construed as an attempt to save face amidst growing levels of criticism. The very fact that an op-ed like this is necessary says something: A level of critical mass has been reached. The dam has evidently sprung a leak.

  12. WBEZ’s schedule cannot include Smiley & West because the show “frames the discussion with the intent of persuading the community” — but the station airs Le Show?

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  14. Good-bye, Mr. Matatia,

    This recent high-profile Resignation news makes me wonder if Mr. Malatia was asked to resign because he insisted on dropping theTavis Smiley / Dr. Cornell West show in November 2012.


    I sided with Tavis Smiley on this one. I learned a lot from Tavis and Dr. West and think that they are both men of great integrity.

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