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Is public broadcasting obsolete?

Congress recently backed off its threat to cut a quarter of the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But House Republicans still say public broadcasting is no longer needed.

With 500 channels of cable television and thousands of Internet Web sites, they argue, the genius of the market has made taxpayer-supported news redundant.

John McManus

I’ll concede that the lawmakers who created public broadcasting almost 40 years ago didn’t envision the vast array of outlets now available -- at least to those who can afford cable and Internet hookups.

But Congress was absolutely clairvoyant in recognizing that news needed protection from profit pressures.

Commercial news has changed since 1970

The most fundamental change in news over the past several decades has been its gradual transformation into a commodity -- a product like any other.

Journalists hate to admit it, but stories now have cost-benefit ratios. If a reporter can’t get an article ready for print or broadcast in a few hours, if it requires travel or lawyering, it better be an audience blockbuster or editors are likely to discourage it.

Sensation is replacing investigation as reporting staffs shrink across the nation. Last year, for the first time, a Pew survey found a majority of American journalists said bottom-line pressures are hurting news quality.

No matter how many news channels and Web sites bring you the Michael Jackson trial, shark or pit bull bites or the sensation du jour, public broadcasting has never been so unique or necessary to an informed public.

NPR will enable the individual to better understand himself, his government, his institutions and his natural and social environment so he can intelligently participate in effecting the process of change.

--William H. Siemering, NPR's first program director

Nowhere is this truer than out in the rural “red” counties and states where funding from the feds is essential to keeping small NPR and PBS stations on the air.

When NPR was young

Compare the news available from commercial media when National Public Radio was young to now.

In 1971, when "All Things Considered" debuted, a network newscast was considered a public service rather than a profit center. In fact, networks routinely spent more on reporting than they gathered in ads during newscasts. It was the price of being able to collect revenue from advertisers for the rest of the broadcast day.

When NPR was new, CBS, ABC and NBC were independent -- not yet small properties of big entertainment or defense corporations like Viacom, General Electric and Disney.

Journalists brought us un-embedded reports of war from Vietnam. The "living room war," with its vivid reports questioning Pentagon reports of a "light at the end of the tunnel" undermined support for that bloody conflict.

In San Francisco and other big cities, TV stations had investigative teams and capital bureaus. Now in some newsrooms there are more empty than occupied desks.

In 1968 when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting began, newspaper companies had just begun to sell shares on the stock market and shift their allegiance from Main Street to Wall Street. The fire wall separating newspapers' reporting from advertising functions still stood.

Market forces hurt journalism

Market forces work wonders with tangible products like computers and cars. But they are eroding the standards of journalism before our eyes.

Congress should be boosting support for public broadcasting, making it truly public. Even with the restoration of funding for CPB, the government would be spending $1.40 per American. That’s out of $8,700 of federal spending in 2005 for each of us.

Nickel and diming public broadcasting has caused local stations to turn increasingly to corporations and retailers for operating revenues.

The more public broadcasters must rely on business, the more similar to commercial stations they are pressured to become. That defeats the purpose of public broadcasting, to provide an alternative to market-driven news, educational and cultural programs.

Write your congressional delegation.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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Bay Area media advocates:

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Maynard Institute
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