Commentary

Dear United States: You Should Think Differently About Public Broadcasting

In my ongoing discussion about how to support true and reliable journalism, there is one option I haven’t talked about: public broadcasting. 

In a previous column, I talked about the difference I saw on one day in the way the news was reported in Canada vs the U.S. Largely missing in Canada was the extreme polarization I saw in editorial tone in the U.S. 

And, as I mentioned in my previous two columns -- one on why free news is bad news and one on the problems with "news" analysis -- the divide between news on the right and news on the left has the same root cause: the need for profitability.

The one thing I didn’t talk about in that U.S. versus Canada column is that we have a robust public broadcaster in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

“Ah,” you say, “We have public broadcasting, too. We have PBS and NPR.” 

Well, yes, but no. There are important differences in how these institutions are funded.

Let’s take PBS, for example. PBS stations are independently operated, and each have their own financials. They are members of PBS, which is not a network but rather a programming partner. Affiliates pay member dues to belong to PBS.

For example, the Seattle PBS affiliate is KCTS, whose 2019 financials show that the lion’s share of its income, over half, comes from individual donations. Corporate donations represent another 16.5%. Just 9% of its funding comes from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), supposedly representing U.S. taxpayers’ support of public broadcasting on PBS and NPR.

CPB has been a punching bag for Republicans for years now. What meager support public broadcasting does receive from CPB is constantly at risk of being chopped by Congress.  Most recently -- and not surprisingly -- Trump threatened to cut funding for CPB from its current level of $445 million to just $30 million. 

He did this after an NPR reporter asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if he owed an apology to the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Conservative radio jumped on the altercation, with one station tweeting, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the U.S. plus satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat Party propaganda operation.”

Trump retweeted, “A very good question.”

It actually is a good question, but from a very different perspective than what Trump intended. 

I am Canadian. I come from a social democratic country. I am free of the knee-jerk reactionism of many Americans (as shown in last week’s election) toward the word “socialism.” You have to start with that idea to understand our approach to broadcasting.

While the CBC does sell advertising, it’s not dependent on it. In its last financial report, just 14.5% of all CBC revenues came from advertising. Sixty-five percent of the CBC’s funds come directly from taxpayer dollars. As a comparison, the amount of money CBC received from the government last year was 1.1 billion, almost three times the total budget of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in the U.S. 

That highlights the difference in attitude about the importance of public broadcasting in our two countries. In Canada -- following the model of Britain and the BBC -- we have enshrined public broadcasting as an important part of our society that we directly support through our taxes. Not only do we have the CBC across Canada, but each province also has its own public broadcaster. 

In the more capitalistic and laissez-faire U.S., public broadcasting largely depends on the kindness of strangers. What little taxpayer support it does receive is constantly being used as a pawn in political posturing between the right and left. 

So, who’s right?

I’ll be honest. There are many Canadians -- not a majority, but a significant percentage -- who would like to see Canada pursue a more American path when it comes to broadcasting. “Who needs the CBC?” they say. 

But I believe strongly that the relative health of Canadian journalism when compared to the U.S. is largely due to our investment in public broadcasting. The CBC sets the norm of what’s acceptable in Canada. Its biggest private competitors, CTV and Global, don’t stray far from the relatively neutral, reliable and objective tone set by the CBC. 

If we look at reliability when it comes to public broadcasters in the U.S., we see that both NPR and PBS score top marks when it comes to lack of bias and reliability on the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart.

Unfortunately, Canadian broadcasters are not represented on the chart, so we’ll have to look for another measure. Luckily, one exists. More on this in a bit.

The doubters of my proposed hypothesis that taxpayer-funded public broadcasting means better journalism will be quick to point out that Russia, China, Cuba -- heck, even Iran -- all have state-owned broadcasters. These are all -- as the conservative radio tweeter above said -- simply “propaganda machines.” How is this different from public broadcasting?

Again, we have the conflation of democratic socialism with the U.S. right’s favorite bogeyman: communism. Y’all really have to stop doing that. 

Public broadcasting in places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are all modeled after the originator of the concept: Britain and the BBC. Although there have been many British prime ministers -- Winston Churchill included -- who sought to co-opt the BBC for their government’s purposes, over the past century a legislative firewall has been built to maintain the public broadcaster’s independence from the government of the day. Similar legislation is in place in Canada and other democracies with strong public broadcasters. 

So, how is that working?

Pretty well, according to Reporters Without Borders, the “biggest NGO specializing in the defense of media freedom.”

The organization’s World Press Freedom Index ranks media freedom in every country in the world. The top five countries (all Nordic and northern European countries -- and all social democracies) have strong public broadcasters. In case you’re wondering, Canada scores 16th on the list. The U.S. scores 45th out of 180 countries. 

Public broadcasting -- real public broadcasting, with taxpayers’ skin in the game -- seems to be working pretty damned well in Canada and other places in the world. (As an interesting side note, the Reporters without Borders ranking of countries bears more than a little resemblance to US NewsQuality of Life Index). 

You should think differently about public broadcasting, because the biggest problem facing journalism in the U.S. isn’t socialism or government propaganda. It’s capitalism. 

6 comments about "Dear United States: You Should Think Differently About Public Broadcasting".
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  1. Ben B from Retired, November 10, 2020 at 7:26 p.m.

    There is nothing on PBS that I watch they can make it on its own since PBS can be like Sinclair & Nexstar and ask for Retrans from pay-TV. I as a taxpayer shouldn't have to fund PBS when it can make it on its own as I said before I'm all for those that want to donate to PBS to fund it but the taxpayer shouldn't have to fund it. Capitalism is the best than socialism and that is a fact which you don't get Gord Hotchkiss. 

  2. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting replied, November 10, 2020 at 7:28 p.m.

    Dear Ben - I think your knee might be jerking.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 11, 2020 at 10 a.m.

    Because all government is socialist. People pay taxes from local, state and federal. The administration of each have departments which take out from that pool when something needs done sporadially or regularly rather than each individually being charged their portion of each need when arising or they have to pay for the digging up of their part of the street if the gas mains have to be replaced or have a big hole in front of their residence. When you vote for your leaders, then there is a social democracy. Capitalism is a by product. When capitalism becomes the dominant force, then fascism/autocracy can't be far behind. In the scheme of history, the United States will be the great example and the experiement needs a major tweeking. 

  4. John Grono from GAP Research, November 11, 2020 at 5:27 p.m.

    Bravo Gord.

    Being an Aussie, I feel the same.

    We have our ABC.   Up until the '70s you could swear that it was a division of the BBC.   Presenters dressed in tuxedos and speaking in a plummy accent with a God Save The Queen sign-off.   We had a change of government in 1975 and it was modenised and it still rankles the conservatives.

    It is publicly funded to the tune of $1.06b. p.a.   It runs local, national and international radio networks.   It runs five national channels and numerous international news bureaux (remember them?).   It also has the leading news website in Australia.   It is also the most respected media brand in Australia and has been for decades.   It is generally known as "Our ABC".

    Because of its success it daily receives the opprobrium of the conservative right led by the Murdoch Press.   It's funding has been frozen and in fact it has also been raided by the Federal Police for reporting factually on some 'uncomfortable' official documents.   Shades of the pre and post WWII modus operaandi.   Thankfully our courts had good sense.

    So we also suffer from McCarthyism-like "reds under the beds" garbage.   Our social structure is creaking under the Friedman-led cut-backs, but our public medical system has saved untold lives during COVID-19.   My hope is that the social schisms wrought by neo-conservatism will be wound back given the effect of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

  5. Tom Haymond from Creative Mobile Technologies, November 13, 2020 at 11:11 a.m.

    The problem with your proposal, Gord, is that if the government is funding the media, they control the media (even if layers are created to supposedly instill an "independence" in the government-funded media. Nice in theory; no probable in reality. Pravda was a "public media" that, if I recall correctly, was not known for it's unbiased reporting. Let these "public" networks compete like all other media, including more ads (even ads that aren't disguised as corporate support messages) and asking for a minimum monthly investment from consumers who feel the content on the network is worth paying for...like Netflix or Disney+. Or have George Soros fund the entire network. That could work too.

  6. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting replied, November 13, 2020 at 11:22 a.m.

    Tom - as mentioned in the column, exactly the opposite is actually happening. I am constantly amazed by how Americans stick with an obviously broken system and wilfully ignore other examples that are working much more successfully. I think you missed the entire jist of the column.

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