TED GLASSER, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Interview conducted by Josh Wilson, May 2008
Most of the folks I’ve been speaking to have been thinking about public media in a very broad sense, not in terms of state-sponsored media, but more generally in terms of developing new nonprofit models. And every now and then somebody says “oh, but then there’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, using our money, maybe we should make them more responsive to our needs.”
It’s odd that it’s so easy to forget that public media traditionally has had that presence in our lives. Or had it — and if it doesn’t anymore, why is that?
Ted Glasser: Well, it’s never been a major force in American society. We have an aversion to the state playing that kind of role. Now we have, as you point out, we do have the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but it’s been systematically underfunded to the point where, compared to European countries and elsewhere in the world, we just don’t take it seriously.
So in general, you don’t think that um programs like McNeil-Lehrer and All Things Considered are important but don’t own as much of the public market share as they should?
I think they’re vitally important, although I’m not a big fan of McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, but I think public broadcasting is vitally important. I think funding for it ought to be strengthened, but more importantly the idea of publicly supported media, not publicly owned and controlled, but publicly supported media deserves more of our attention.
But not just radio and television — there’s a particular bias in the United States in favor of talking about public support for broadcasting even though it’s marginal, but there’s virtually no conversation about creating a system of subvention for other media —
For other forms? For example, online media?
It could be anything, we don’t need to talk about what it is, what we need to talk about is the importance of a system of strong, sustainable newsrooms. Whether those newsrooms produce material for websites or newspapers or radio or television is less important, and partly because most newsrooms are multimedia now anyway, so specifying the technology is really increasingly beside the point.
You do have a prescription for the situation you just described, and I’m wondering if you could describe that a little.
Well we’re at the very early stages of talking about what a National Endowment for Journalism might look like … we haven’t figured out most of the details, but there are any number of opportunities to secure substantial funding for something like this.
One good place to begin would be by tapping into the billions of dollars the FCC brings in when it auctions off our airwaves, those natural resources, and those auctions are likely to continue, and they bring in billions of dollars, and there’s no reason why that couldn’t be used to begin to create and endowment for journalism.
And then the task would be to define what we mean by journalism, what kind of journalism do we want to support. The goal would be to create the conditions for supporting journalism that the marketplace no longer supports or never supported.
So it would be alternative forms of journalism, journalism aimed at minority communities, journalism where communities are deemed to be demographically unattractive. You know, the places that have historically been disenfranchised and are increasingly disenfranchised given the failure of the business model of journalism.
What about the seeming lack of interest by the American public in serving the underserved via public media, i.e., viewing it as “alternative” journalism, which I suppose has all sorts of political implications.
Alternative journalism is journalism aimed at people who aren’t well-served by existing newsrooms — they’re not hard to identify. They’re all over the United States. Almost every inner city lacks a serious neighborhood newspaper. You go up and down the [San Francisco] Peninsula, and it’s not difficult to find the poorer communities without weekly newspapers. The stronger communities like Palo Alto are amply served with local media.
So by alternative news you mean –
I mean alternative to the marketplace.
Can you speak about the strengths and weaknesses of public media in the Internet era?
By public media you mean — ?
Everybody has been defining it in their own way, so I’m reluctant to impose my own definition. I’d like to use an inclusive one — to say that both existing traditional public media, publicly owned media, as well as emerging publicly supported models –
Do you include privately owned?
You know, Geneva Overholser suggested, when I was talking to her, that subscriptions and newsstand sales do constitute a form of public support for commercial and privately owned papers … but I think we do need to speak about the tax-exempt sector.
I think there’s a very weak and underdeveloped infrastructure for public media. That’s not to say that there aren’t great examples of people doing wonderful work, but it’s hit-and-miss, there’s no systematic support for it, and that’s why I think there needs to be public support for public media, not simply philanthropic support, not simply entrepreneurial support, but something that we can count on that will create not simply outlets, but outlets that coalesce into a larger system.
I think what the United States desperately needs is not simply alternative media or minority media that serves the needs of the particular community, but [to] find ways to create linkages to successively larger media, which is to say that there needs to be a relationship between mainstream and minority media, so that local communities get to participate in successively larger discussions, so that we create opportunities for participation in society through a system of media —
You are describing something a lot more aggressive than the piecemeal approach of, “Let’s support this small project here.” That’s the philanthropic approach right now — very cautious, focused on the entrepreneurial side and lacking vision for what you describe as a system.
I think you’re absolutely right. And it needs to be radical reform, in the sense that it needs to get at the root of the problem, and that is the absence of the infrastructure to support the kind of journalism we would all agree we want. I’m not proposing any radical or strange form of journalism. I’m trying to find a way to support what almost everyone would agree is the kind of journalism we need.
Does the Internet provide that opportunity? Is it the ideal mass medium for what you’re talking about, or does it need to be more inclusive of traditional media?
It depends on what you’re trying to do. There’s still a digital divide in the United States. And it’s in part a divide grounded in funding and funds. It still costs money to buy a computer. And there’s a literacy question. You need to be able to operate the software. I don’t know of a recent study that suggests how big this divide is, but we need to find ways of getting computers into the hands of more people and getting more people to be comfortable with computers if the Internet is going to serve the role of an alternative newspaper.
But it sounds like you don’t think the Internet is itself a magic bullet that’s going to make it all better.
Oh no, the early talk about the Internet democratizing the world is far off base. We’ve made the same claims about almost every new communication technology. That’s not to deny that computerization of communication has fundamentally altered the landscape — it has. And it’s created all sorts of interesting and new opportunities.
But the opportunities depend on … a core of quality journalists. And that’s the very core that’s shrinking now. I mean, we keep firing some of the most talented, or encouraging them to take buyouts, and it gets reported in the most euphemistic ways.
We don’t even use the word fired — it’s “laid off,” “bought out” — these people are being fired! At a time when we need more journalism, not less journalism.
One of the things that comes to mind when I think of a large system of support is — control versus independence. One of the key points of the SPJ Code of Ethics is to act independently, which is something that isn’t as possible in the hierarchical commercial newsrooms of the day.
With regard to control and independence, I think it’s a non-issue, in fact it’s easier to maintain independence and control in a publicly-supported media environment than a privately-supported one because 1) there’s more transparency and 2) there’s more accountability.
We can demand from the state transparency and accountability that we can never demand of Google or Yahoo or anything. Now that isn’t to say that the conditions for independence and autonomy seem to me to be stronger in the public sector than the private sector. And you know NPR has exhibited, if not more, certainly as much independence as any other news outlet in the United States.
I’m more fearful of the subtle but insidious control that advertising imposes on the press, and the insidious and not-so-subtle control that people like Murdoch impose on the press. and we as the public — there’s nothing we can say about that. There’s no one we can call, there’s no one we can convene, we just accept it.
And you hear the phrase constantly in journalism “these are the realities we have to accept.” And I think that’s the phrase we need to abandon. These are not the realities we have to accept. We should identify for ourselves the ideal set of conditions and then ask ourselves how do we get there. Rather than accepting the conditions that are imposed on us by a model that equates free enterprise with free press.
It seems like the media-reform community — who often focus on exclusively top-level policy and aren’t really involved with producing journalism — sometimes suggests that all we need is a friendly FCC and everything will be nice and pleasant and the corporations will behave. That’s a simplification of their message — but do you think that that is a step towards having transparency, being able to make demands on the private sector?
The FCC only deals with broadcasting. The whole media landscape calls into the question the role of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was modeled on the Interstate Commerce Commission. It views communication as an aspect of commerce, not an aspect of culture.
It can’t figure out quite its regulatory framework given its supervision over computers and cable, all the things that don’t demand the scarce frequencies that were the original justification for the FCC back in the 20s and 30s. We need to re-think the role of the state in creating a system of diverse media and opportunities for diversity of journalism.
What would that look like?
We need a national commission, and this coincides with — supports — a notion of a national endowment for journalism, that ask these larger questions: What system of journalism does a democracy of the kind we have in the United States need? To what extent can the marketplace sustain it, to what extent can it not? And to the extent that we agree that the marketplace cannot sustain the kind of journalism we all agree we need, then we need to ask ourselves what can we do to bring that about. Rather than accepting whatever the marketplace yields.
Would this commission be public, or private, or a combination?
Conspicuously public and democratic.
State chartered, or — ?
To be honest, that level of detail I just don’t know. A few of us are working on that, but it will probably take us a long time to figure out some of the details, and even if we get to that level of detail, it’s going to mean nothing unless people understand and agree with the larger democratic premise that communication is a democratic enterprise. It needs to be operated democratically, it needs to be justified, defended, and supported democratically. It’s a democratic institution, journalism is a democratic institution, it shouldn’t be subject only to the whims of the private sector.
It is a little bit of a literacy and awareness, civics and media literacy and education issue.
I think that’s the biggest challenge, particularly among journalists. Journalists are historically, in the United States, libertarian in their view of press freedom. They have a right-wing bias among journalists, they might not like to think of themselves as right-wing, but their understanding of the First Amendment is very right-wing, it is very focused on individual liberty, not on the needs of the community.
And they celebrate the relationship between free press and free enterprise. And I think the education challenge begins with journalists and then spreads into the larger community. But I think you’ll find these ideas much more receptive in the larger community than in the journalism community.