Monday, March 22, 2021

Broadcasters in a State

RTÉ Documentary Makes Public Really Sad About Homelessness For A Whole Hour
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, January 19
In my previous post I vented my frustration with the increasingly polarized and fragmented media landscape when it comes to broadcast journalism. I was speaking specifically about the United States, but what about other countries? I attributed the U.S.’s partisan environment to the sheer size of the country combined with technology that rewards narrowcasting. Surely, those would not be such prominent factors in other countries?

What is distinctive about the States as a country, besides its size, is that it has no dominant national broadcaster. That’s an institution pretty much ubiquitous throughout the rest of the world. Canada has the CBC, the United Kingdom has the BBC, France has France Télévisions, Russia has RT, and Ireland has RTÉ. Many countries also, unlike the U.S. and Canada, exact a household license fee for the purpose of subsidizing the national broadcaster. In Britain, for example, this means BBC viewers do not have to watch commercials—apart from the BBC’s own adverts touting BBC programs. Ireland has the worst of both worlds with viewers (and actually non-viewers as well) required to pay the annual license fee but still having to sit through commercial advertisements. Despite its hybrid viewer/corporate revenue stream, RTÉ has long been unable to balance a budget, although it has just been announced that it finally does have a surplus—thanks to the fact that for the past year people were literally forced to stay at home with little else to do but watch telly.

Technically, the U.S. does have a national broadcaster through the taxpayer-funded non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting which supports the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) networks, but these do not have anywhere near the dominance in America that other countries’ public broadcasters have. Also, because PBS’s and NPR’s taxpayer funding meets only a small part of their budgets, they rely largely on voluntary viewer contributions and corporate underwriting. In fact, one could make the argument that, due to their heavy reliance on corporate underwriting, PBS and NPR actually constitute one more facet of the U.S. corporate media landscape, albeit one with a very specific educated and affluent viewer demographic.

Shouldn’t the national broadcaster be the answer to polarized political reporting? Shouldn’t a public or semi-public entity with a mandate to serve the entire nation and, ideally, independent or semi-independent from corporate money be an antidote to all the partisan stuff? Maybe in theory, but not in my experience.

This is where I again get to mention my Master of Arts degree in journalism from Ohio State University. I did my studies in that fine institution back when the idea of a journalism school in college, particularly at the graduate level, was a new one. Most of my teachers had gotten their professorships bestowed on them honorarily in recognition of many years of working in the profession rather than through any academic qualifications. They were mostly well up in years because the teaching gig was basically their semi-retirement. These were old-school guys—and yes, they were mostly, if not exclusively, male—who experienced journalism as a blue-collar profession, pounding city streets and banging on manual typewriters, and who at the end of a workday unwound in smoky bars. They had a hard-nosed, practical and yet refreshingly idealistic idea of what journalism was. You were supposed to keep digging until you got the story, and you never took sides. In writing a story, you assumed nothing and took no one’s word at face value. Skepticism was the watchword.

If your mother says she loves you, went the rule, check it out!

I would love to find my old professors now—if any of them have lungs and livers that have survived this long—to find out what they think of the current state of journalism. I think I kind of know. They were basically newspaper guys, and even way back in the 1970s they looked down their noses at television. Of course, the internet was not even a thing yet. One principle they were clear on was that the government should have no role in the news business except as something to be covered aggressively. In many countries, one needs a license or an institutional qualification to practice journalism. In the U.S., by contrast, the First Amendment has always meant that every citizen is born a journalist. The government cannot pick and choose who is qualified to do the job.

My old professors’ main concern about state media in general was that it could not be objective when covering politicians who approved their budget and paid their salaries. Ironically, after a couple of decades of getting my television and radio news from state broadcasters, I find that the problem is nearly the opposite. Safeguards are in place in countries like the UK and Ireland to insulate state news organizations from government pressure. Significant public funding also tends to insulate them from advertiser pressure. That sounds like a good thing—until you cop on to the fact political and corporate pressure are often actually extensions of general public sentiment.

In practice, I find, state news organizations tend to become detached from the general public they are meant to be serving, not unlike the way political reporting at student-run college radio stations often goes off in its own idealistic direction. On top of that, state broadcasters are de facto gatekeepers of information in the way that the three big corporate network news organizations in the U.S. once styled themselves. In RTÉ’s world, if it determines something is not worthy or salutary for public consumption, it simply does not get reported. Yes, there is a much smaller commercial rival TV broadcaster here as well as several newspapers, but by practical necessity most people have to rely on RTÉ for their daily news.

Those who don’t find the state broadcaster reflecting their own personal reality inevitably look for alternative sources of information. Traditionally, stories have gotten passed around informally by word of mouth. Of course, these days finding alternative news sources is easier than it’s ever been, and there are no geographical limits.

Is there anything corporate broadcasters (in the U.S.) or state broadcasters (elsewhere) could do to better meet the needs of news consumers?

The reality may be that there is no perfect model for broadcast journalism and that the current state of information churn is the best we can hope for.

On one hand, after years of listening to measured, modulated and controlled news broadcasts from state broadcasters, the blaring and breathless style of U.S. cable news operations—with their all-too-frequent commercial interruptions—grates.

On the other hand, I often find myself wishing I could switch to a different Irish channel (sorry, Virgin Media, you’re not it) for a contrasting perspective or just to fill in the information gaps.

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