Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More on the "Is PBS Liberal?" Question

A short, anonymous comment to an earlier post--"CPB versus BBC, and What It May Mean for Politics"--raises two important issues I wanted to reflect on, in two separate posts.

Here's the comment:  IMO [in my opinion] government media is going to be suspect and antithetical to conservatives whether in the US or UK.

More later on whether government-funded media is the same as "government media," but first, is this claim about the treatment of conservatives valid? 

I think this is more an article of faith than fact. 

Certainly in the UK, Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would disagree with the assertion.  See for instance Tony Blair's farewell attack on the media, in which he said, "today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."  Clearly the BBC was square in his sights--and David Kelly in his memory--when he made this speech. 

Gordon Brown got an even rougher ride.  He--as well as his Government--was often put in the box of "worthy of ridicule" once his honeymoon ended and he was perceived to dither away the calling of a "snap election."  During the same period, the Conservative David Cameron, increasingly portrayed as the Prime Minister-in-waiting, was given much lighter scrutiny, at least prior to the final campaign month (yes, it's just a month long there, and no TV ads allowed).

What about over here?  I haven't seen an analysis that breaks down recent media coverage by cable versus networks versus PBS, but media analysis does suggest that at least in Bush's first term, foreign policies received fairly little critical treatment from the mainstream media.  It was only in the second term that the critical lenses got focused. 

And though it's just an impression, it seems more recently like there are weeks when NPR can't seem to get enough of Sarah Palin.

What the view may boil down to is this--and I have some very limited first-hand experience of the following hunch from hosting "The Campbell Conversations"--the overall audience for PBS and NPR is, relatively speaking, more liberal and less friendly toward conservatives.  People are aware of this fact and many take their bearings about the stations' content from it.  I can say, for example, that I tend to get more critical comments about my program when I have conservative people on the show. 

So some of the motivation for cutting off the CPB's funding is probably being driven by a perception of what the "constituency" for the programming is.  And that takes us back to Christopher Cook's observation about the BBC in my earlier post, that part of its funding security rests on its deep--and broad--appeal.


Anonymous said...

I tend to agree. A long standing belief that Academia is is populated predominately by persons of the "liberal" persuasion has led to the theory that persons of this persuasion more readily migrate to the teaching arts, rather than Academia being responsible for their ideology. It probably holds true for listeners, who are dismayed and refuse to listen to monolithic broadcast outlets. Further, PBS is often lambasted as being "elitist" which is apparently a dog whistle slur by people that denigrate higher learning. Even people that don't follow a particular political point of view deserve and appreciate a more balanced point of view.
Bob K

LisaMJ said...

I think the e-mail was fuzzy on how much the BBC or NPR/PBS the Center for Public Broadcasting (CPB) are “government” media. Even though NPR and PBS receive a certain percentage of their funding from the government, the bulk of their funding comes from grants from private entities and viewer/listener support. So whether those networks are liberal or antithetical to conservatism, they aren’t truly government media. I may not be qualified to determine whether either network is liberal or not b/c I am liberal myself so I’m not really objective but I find them fairly even-keeled. I will say though that over the years I’ve heard people like Jim Lehrer of the News Hour and other commentators on those networks say that they get complaints from the left and the right on their reporting and opinions in fairly even numbers until recently.

As for the BBC, they are really difficult to really compare to their US counterparts. The BBC produces significantly more entertainment programming than NPR/PBS that draws in more viewers of a variety of reasons and I’d suspect the entertainment aspect helps to boost the overall popularity of the network which keeps up funding for the news areas. Furthermore, from what I know of the history of British TV and radio, the BBC was the biggest player on the block until fairly recently, so if people wanted to watch TV regularly they had to watch some BBC programming and I think until some time in the 80's the BBC was the only network that was on most of the day every single day in the UK whereas we had the big 3 networks from almost day one, then uhf stations and cable by the 80s so there has always been more choice. Also, if you want to have a TV and live the UK you have to pay for a TV license fee and some or all of it goes to fund the BBC, so even in this day and age where Brits have more TV choices with satellite, cable and other British networks, and some may never watch the BBC, they still have to pay for it whether they like it or not. So the news gets to keep going by virtue of a strong entertainment arm and even if the BBC news has a liberal slant (which I don’t think it does but that is just opinion) people would raise holy hell if the other programming was cut because of a perceived bias in news reporting and I don’t think the government can tell them exactly how to fund what.

Also because the BBC has a reputation for providing excellent international news coverage that goes back to the days when it was just BBC World Service on radio back during WWII, they have a long credible history of providing high quality news for the world. Although PBS provides excellent news programs they made up a very small part of their broadcast hours and though NPR is largely news focused, few Americans really turn to NPR or PBS as news sources so they don't have the same level of long term "street' cred and aren’t as well entrenched in the hearts of most Americans as Auntie Beeb is in the hearts of Brits and others worldwide. Also, because of the popularity of their international news service the BBC earns revenue from other countries and can funnel that back into news reporting. None of this would or could happen in America today.

I guess all of this is a long way of saying that the British conservative politicians hands are much more tied when it comes to cutting or defunding the BBC whereas their American counterparts are not; but I also think that PBS/NPR/CPB aren’t going away if their government funding is cut, they will be badly damaged, especially in smaller markets but they have enough outside support to keep going. For example, the Pacifica Foundation, which also provides public radio has been going strong from over 50 years with no corporate or government sponsorship and launched the idea of listener support and they have far fewer listeners than NPR and have made it all these years.

Liberal Bias  said...

I value your important and informative point of view here. You have written this article so nice and informative. Thanks for sharing your time and effort.

Anonymous said...

Transparency before going further: I host a program on a regional essay writing service station, and while I have an interest in seeing that program continue, I am not paid by NPR or the local station.

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