By Steve Coll
Sunday, October 31, 2010; B1
Steve Coll, a former managing editor of The Washington Post and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is president of the New America Foundation.
National Public Radio's decision to fire news analyst Juan Williams after he made controversial comments on Fox News about Muslims has become - for some Republican lawmakers, at least - a teachable moment. NPR, House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner (R-Ohio) said recently, is a "left-wing radio network" and should be stripped of federal funding. Eric Cantor, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Bill O'Reilly and other conservative voices have issued similar calls.
The Williams imbroglio is teachable, but its lessons actually point in the opposite direction: America's public media system, including NPR, requires more funding, not less. In particular, the funding should come from commercial broadcasters that profit from their licensed use of scarce public airwaves - and that would include News Corp., the parent of Fox News.
In this time of niche publications and cable networks that thrive on ideological anger, we should be seeking to strengthen NPR's role as a convener of the public square, a demagogue-free zone where all political and social groups - including conservatives and others opposed to federal funding of public media - should be welcome on equal terms.
During my six-year stint as managing editor of this newspaper, I made plenty of bad, time-pressured judgment calls. The Williams firing looks like a classic of the genre because it was carried out in a way guaranteed to obscure whatever merit the decision had. The precipitous speed with which NPR dispatched its most visible right-leaning voice and the defensive tone the network's leaders used to explain themselves made it entirely fair to question whether the network acted from ideological bias. Of course, Fox News displayed its own familiar, unabashed opportunism by quickly offering Williams a $2 million contract and pledging to protect his freedom of speech "on a daily basis."
The episode matters in part because NPR's place in American journalism and society is changing. Its growing audience of 30 million listeners - attracted by the network's worldwide reporting, lengthy interviews and deep analysis - increasingly constitutes a distinctive and influential commons, comparable to the audience served by the news divisions of major broadcast networks during the 1960s and 1970s.
Altogether, the public broadcasting system - NPR; its quasi-rival on radio, American Public Media; the Public Broadcasting Service on television; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides them funding approved by Congress - reaches 98 percent of the American population. The system has achieved this penetration despite being comparatively starved of government-mandated investment. The United States spends about $1.40 per capita, or $420 million a year, on public and nonprofit media through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Britain spends about $87 per capita, according to an analysis by the advocacy and policy group Free Press. Canada, one of the most miserly industrialized democracies in this area, spends about $27 per capita.
NPR is the most effective nonprofit media organization in the country because of the excellence of its international and national reporting. Like all successful journalistic and cultural institutions, though, it must continually challenge its own complacency. ("Saturday Night Live," we can hope, will continue to keep NPR's producers honest; Alec Baldwin's hilarious "Schweddy Balls" skit suggests some of NPR's tendencies toward self-isolation.)
If it is open to criticism, the network can shed bad habits, innovate and diversify its programming by reaching out to member stations, audiences and outsiders.
When the British Broadcasting Corporation recently came under conservative criticism for allegedly tilting to the left, its managers conducted a review. They concluded that the BBC's reporting of particular stories was not typically biased against conservatives but that news subjects of concern to the right, such as immigration and business, were disproportionately neglected. A course correction broadened the BBC's audience and political support. NPR might benefit from a similar self-examination.
The network's self-critical evolution is vital because time, technological change and special interest lobbying have eroded to the vanishing point the public interest provisions of the 1934 Communications Act and other laws. Those provisions were intended to ensure that the commercial broadcasting industry helped strengthen the country's democracy by educating the public and promoting civil, inclusive debate. A modern, credible public media system anchored in NPR and PBS offers the best and most realistic way to address this failure.
To guide the broadcasting industry's public purpose, the Communications Act required that the nation's finite airwaves be allocated in "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." Today, for all the changes of the digital age, licensed broadcasters and other commercial media outlets still profit from exclusive access to public property - the airwaves, government-granted cable monopolies, satellite bands and the like.
Yet the bargain by which these businesses compensate the public for this access is broken and in urgent need of reform. Many journalists instinctively recoil from engaging the details of communications policy, fearing that it might invite government encroachment on press freedoms. But it would be no wiser to ignore this failure than it would be to stop regulating offshore oil leases or maintaining public parks.
The Federal Communications Commission oversees the formal "public interest obligations" undertaken by broadcasters in exchange for their spectrum licenses. There has always been an eye-of-the-beholder aspect to these obligations, but during the 1960s and 1970s, broadcast networks and local stations understood that serious news reporting, public service announcements and education programming were required of them. In recent years, influenced by industry lobbyists, the rules have been so watered down that commercial broadcasters do little more than self-report on their service to the public. They do not have to file their reports with anyone but themselves, as long as those filings are available during office hours. The neutered system is symbolic of deeper failures of private media to serve the public interest.
Last summer, researchers led by my colleague Tom Glaisyer collected some of the public interest filings maintained by commercial broadcasters around the country. (Their work informs my more detailed argument for public media policy reform that is being published this week by the Columbia Journalism Review, available at www.cjr.org.)
Here in Washington, the research team visited WUSA (Channel 9), a CBS affiliate with a decent record of local news reporting. In a recent quarterly report, WUSA dutifully listed its contributions to the public interest, as required by federal law.
In a "Public Interest Report" on the issue of "Child Abuse" on April 27, 2010, the station said it broadcast, for two minutes, the following story: "Authorities say Janay Morgan Majors shot and killed her husband. It happened inside the couple's home on Lanes Corner Road in Spotsylvania County. 'She did call and said, "I shot my husband,' " Lieutenant James Bibens told 9 News Now."
After that "Public Interest Report" came another on the issue of "Domestic Abuse." The date of that story is listed in the filing as June 18, 2010. The story begins: "Authorities say Janay Morgan Majors shot and killed her husband. . ." The text is identical to the report on "Child Abuse."
Pity the junior staff members who must waste time and paper on this charade at WUSA and hundreds of other licensed stations. The very existence of such a Dickensian system of busywork and evasion is a symptom of how broken the public interest component of the Communications Act is.
Early next year, an FCC team led by former journalist and Internet entrepreneur Steve Waldman will publish a major study on the future of American media policy, and public interest obligations are likely to be among its important subjects.
There are several reform ideas Waldman's team should consider. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that licensed stations donate $7 billion worth of airtime annually in the public interest, a figure that does not include the cost of paperwork filings. Even 10 percent of that amount, redirected to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as an inducement for reforms, could remake the system by supporting investments in digital technology, more diverse programming, better governance of stations and expanded local reporting. Financial incentives to improve the CPB should be accompanied by stronger firewalls to protect the system's independence from politicians.
It would not burden the Treasury or the economy to raise fees from spectrum purchasers and users, in exchange for relief from the malfunctioning system they live with now. Satellite broadcasters are required to set aside expensive bandwidth for public interest purposes, but that has little impact in producing meaningful public interest journalism; the value of that spectrum could be redirected to public media. In the cable industry, which is governed locally, rules designed to set aside channels for public access could be restructured and strengthened without the need for new tax revenue.
We don't need a better paperwork system - we need to rethink entirely the public interest bargain that governs the use of airwaves and monopoly cable franchises. Continuing to force profit-seeking licensees to tack public interest work onto their commercial enterprises is a fool's errand. It would be far more rational to let commercial enterprises respond to market incentives as they see fit, while leaving the construction of public interest journalism to organizations and leaders who want to do nothing else - among them, NPR.
Williams's firing is a distraction from the media policy choices facing the country, but it should not be dismissed as merely another episode of Fox News-inspired theater. The incident has no doubt reminded NPR's leaders that the network's growing importance requires extraordinary care about perceptions of political bias. Still, during the next several years, the country will confront broader questions about the future health of public media and its decades-old, congressionally mandated mission to serve the public interest.
By fixing the public interest obligation system of the Communications Acts, we have the means to modernize our public media and, by doing so, to reinforce a calm, nonpartisan center in American democracy.