So they ask a guy who’s worked for public TV, locally and nationally for 26 years – most of his journalism career – to defend the institution (PBS and NPR) from significant, if not total, government defunding.
Whaddya expect he’s gonna say? “Do it!”?
A few years ago, I actually might have said that about PBS. With the proliferation of cable TV channels and myriad programming choices all over the airwaves and the internet, there’s got to be something for everyone out there, right?
Two key words here are “cable” and “internet.” A lot of folks in rural, distant, mountainous America may not get or want to pay for cable. The same with the internet, where one might stream video or audio programming. So they still search for over-the-air signals.
That’s where, in most cases, you can pick up PBS or NPR. PBS claims it reaches 99 percent of the nation; NPR’s reach is similar.
The federal government helps that happen – with no small support from the “contributions of viewers like you.”
In 2015, private, non-tax-based sources provided 65 percent of public broadcasting revenues; 19 percent came from state and local tax-based institutions. Only 15.8 percent came from the federal government; this is an ideal public-private partnership.
Now let’s get to the sticky part. I worked for the now-called “PBS NewsHour” for 21 years when it was managed by co-anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. It was the first hour-long nightly newscast on the major broadcast networks.
MacNeil and Lehrer joked the show’s motto was “we dare to be boring.” Some nights it was. But the program’s existence was not predicated on audience ratings and advertising revenue.
Lehrer reminded us repeatedly: “No one can be truly objective (based on fortune of birth, socioeconomic background and education), but one can be fair.”
That means providing both sides of the story. It’s an adage almost as old as American journalism itself. We employed that rule every day.
To be fair and balanced in this article, I must report that in the mid-1970s, I worked for the take-no-prisoners conservative Roger Ailes at a news syndication service underwritten by equally conservative brewing baron Joseph Coors.
I was the Washington content producer, and neither ever meddled in the political news stories we generated.
I believe that was because I am a trained journalist. I went to college to learn how to report honestly, write accurately and present both sides.
I honored that training professionally in the best way I knew how.
I worked with colleagues who had the same training, and we in turn taught our younger colleagues to respect the same values. Our editing enforced them.
Based on what I hear regularly on NPR, that integrity is regularly practiced there, too.
I have long believed NPR has the best newscasts in all of broadcasting.
They have to be, if for no other reason that its staff is using your tax dollars to inform you.
And for that you deserve the “truth,” as informed and honorable professionals can best provide it.
So after dallying with the idea that we as a nation might sacrifice public broadcasting, I have reversed course.
Now, more than ever, with the onslaught of false news, alternative facts, proven lies in public debate and the unfathomable damage of computer hacking, we need responsible journalism – reporters and writers who can identify the truth and convey it in as many media as possible.
I’m not much of a Bible reader, but I recall it tells us repeatedly in chapters and verses such as John 8:32 and Philippians 4:8, the honest truth, once we can recognize and accept what it is, “will set you free.” And – I fervently believe – keep us free. PBS and NPR will help us stay that way.
Gregg Ramshaw held senior news broadcast positions at “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” and “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” for 21 years. Send email to email@example.com.