< Keeping the Public in Public Broadcasting


Friday, March 11, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: Around the same time that Senator DeMint wrote his Op-Ed, New America Foundation president Steve Coll wrote an open letter to the Federal Communications Commission. In it he argued that we should rethink much of our media policy here in the U.S., starting with an increase in funding for public media, which, Coll says, was created to raise the level of public discourse. STEVE COLL: The purpose was to add to the mix the kind of programming and mission that commercial broadcasters will not find profitable but which is nonetheless in the public interest. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't have a commercially dominated media. I am arguing that the commercially dominated media does not produce public interest journalism adequately. BOB GARFIELD: The fact is, Steve, that public broadcasting has become kind of a political piñata. It is deemed to represent a liberal worldview that some on the right just don't want to subsidize in any way, shape or form. Is there a way around that philosophical objection to the tone or the values of public broadcast? STEVE COLL: First, we shouldn't over-interpret the criticism but we should listen to it. At the same time, in order to carry out its role, like the Federal Reserve, or the Securities and Exchange Commission, or your local prosecutor, it requires a certain degree of professional independence. And so the best thing to do is to strengthen the independence of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting while holding it accountable across the political spectrum. BOB GARFIELD: So Nick Gillespie’s solution is to defund public broadcasting and end the argument about whether a public broadcast is too politically inflected. You have a slightly different [LAUGHS] approach. You say as a society we should double down, we should increase the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. What’s the scheme? STEVE COLL: The idea that originates in the law that commercial broadcasters using public spectrum have an obligation to serve the public in exchange for that privilege, that idea has evolved into a farcical system in which the commercial broadcasters essentially fill out forms that they keep in their own offices saying, well, we did some crime reporting yesterday so we've educated the public about spousal abuse or child abuse. It doesn't serve the public but it wastes a lot of money. So the essence of it is that you relieve the commercial broadcasters of their expensive and ineffective public interest obligation and instead extract spectrum usage fees that can be directed to strengthen public media. And in addition, the FCC is overseeing multibillion-dollar new spectrum auctions, and it would be quite simple to tack into those auctions user fees that could be directed to public broadcasting. And I promise you as a percentage of the profits that they will make from those spectrum auctions, the fees [LAUGHS] we're talking about are a fraction of what they pay their investment bankers just to get to the table. BOB GARFIELD: That said, your open letter to the FCC predated by about three days [LAUGHS] a gigantic sweep in the midterm elections of Republicans into Congress. I'm going to take a wild stab here and say you haven't gotten a call from John Boehner’s office saying, why, Steve, tell me more about your plan. STEVE COLL: [LAUGHS] It’s early. He’s making a lot of calls this week. I do think that it is in the interests of all political actors in the United States to have a healthy public broadcasting system. Look, what is it like to be a professional politician in this environment? The Internet can come alive with false rumors about your conduct. If you go on television to try to make yourself heard, you've got 20 seconds and it may be a shouting match with somebody on the other side. But it is in their mutual interest to construct, as Britain has, a public broadcasting system where civil, deep, serious, inclusive debate about the issues of the day can take place. I mean, if you've lived in Britain and you turn on their morning public broadcasting shows, you could not paint them politically, but what you do find is that everybody who’s a political actor has time to make their arguments. BOB GARFIELD: You’re talking about a continent that has primetime programming devoted to literary criticism. These people are not like you and me. [LAUGHTER] Is there any chance that a long form political conversation and debate would get any kind of audience if, you know, there’s not someone from FOX News or MSNBC to immoderate the discussion? STEVE COLL: But we have that evidence now, and it’s in the ratings of your network. Look at the combined audiences of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They exceed the combined audiences of the morning shows of the major networks. BOB GARFIELD: That large audience, though, isn't it like the very elite that the likes of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin like to denounce? STEVE COLL: It has demographic limitations. It tends to be white and rural and old in comparison to the national population, and part of the purpose of revitalizing public media would be to make it younger and more like America in its ethnic and racial makeup. But it’s too large to be elite. BOB GARFIELD: Steve, as always, thank you so much. STEVE COLL: My pleasure, Bob, thanks for having me on. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Steve Coll is a frequent contributor to New Yorker and he is president of the New America Foundation.