The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
By Ralph Nader
February 13, 2019
Correction (2/14/2019): The Albany radio station WAMC was incorrectly identified as WMAL.
Recently an elderly gentleman asked me about my opinion on NPR and PBS, knowing of my vigorous support in the nineteen sixties for these alternatives to commercial radio and television stations.
Here is my response:
Congress created NPR and PBS to provide serious programming, without any advertisements, for the American people. Former media executive Fred Friendly and others worried that the commercial stations were not meeting the 1934 Communications Act requirement that they operate for the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”
In 1961, before a shocked convention of broadcasters, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Newton Minow called commercial television “a vast wasteland.”
Over the decades, NPR and PBS have produced some good programming – original features (among the best coming from Boston affiliate WGBH) and interviews. NPR has the largest radio audience in the country. David Brancaccio, the bright host of Marketplace Morning Report, has a daily listening audience of 11 million.
However, over the years, without regular critiques by liberal and progressive groups, both NPR and PBS have bent to the continual right-wing antagonism in Congress that decreased public budgets. PBS started to allow advertisements (called “support for x station or x PBS network program comes from y corporation.”) These ads have become more frequent and can be as long as 15 seconds.
During the 8am to 9am hour WAMC, Albany recently aired 28 such “support from…” commercials. That is almost one “ad” every two minutes!
The omnipresence of the ads hour after hour has irritated many NPR listeners around the country. By way of comparison, a major commercial station in Hartford – WTIC – clocked 18 advertisements in that 8am hourly slot – albeit they were longer than the NPR ones.
It seems that NPR and PBS, often by their omissions and slants, bend over backward in order not to offend right-wing lobbies and corporations. They invite guests on air who ideologically oppose public broadcasting – that’s fine, but then they minimize the appearances by leading progressives.
Occasionally, I speak with the NPR and PBS Ombudsmen. The purpose of the ombudsman is to maintain proper standards and ethics as well as to consider audience complaints. A while back, an NPR Ombudsman volunteered to me that NPR was giving far more time to representatives of conservative evangelical groups than to representatives of liberal religious organizations.
Charlie Rose on PBS had many more CEOs on his program than civic leaders. During a rare appearance by me on his show with Jim Hightower and William Greider in 1998, the audience reaction was robust. The response from around the country was so pronounced that in an internal e-mail, that was inadvertently sent to my office, a Rose staffer complained that we might have been encouraging the positive response. Absurd and false, but revealing nonetheless.
Rose, by the way, set the stage for PBS and NPR by interviewing his two favorite reporters again and again instead of active specialists or scholars in various fields. For example, Judy Woodruff, the ultra-cautious, exclusionary anchor of the “News Hour,” interviewed reporters on complex tax legislation instead of authentic experts such as the long-time director of the well-regarded Citizens for Tax Justice, Robert McIntyre, often invited by her predecessors.
In 2016 we convened for eight days in the largest gathering of civic leaders, doers, and thinkers of more reforms and redirections ever brought together. They made over 160 presentations in Constitution Hall (see breakingthroughpower.org). Although we advanced this remarkable Superbowl of Civic Action directly to NPR and PBS producers, their reporters never showed up. Certainly, they have not treated right-wing conventions in Washington, D.C. in that manner.
There are other practices of public broadcasting and its syndicated talk shows, that its audiences should know about to understand how much broader coverage they have been denied. One is that the amount of time devoted to music and entertainment pieces goes well beyond the intent of the legislators who created NPR and PBS (both created by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967). Members of Congress knew that entertainment was adequately taken care of by the thousands of commercial stations.
Moreover, even commercial network radio would not use its weekday 6pm hour for music, as one NPR station does in Washington, D.C. Nor does commercial network TV news in the evening start their programs with several advertisements, as does PBS’s The NewsHour and Kai Ryssdal’s jazzy, drumbeat, breathless NPR evening show – Marketplace.
Recently, I discovered another woeful transformation. Wondering why I could not get calls back from the state-wide NPR stations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, I sent them written complaints. These stations had venerable programs that used to interview me and other civic leaders on consumer, environment, and corporate crime topics.
Minnesota Public Radio politely wrote back, regretting that they had not called me back and explained that they now adjust their programming to react or expand on ”what is in the national conversation.” Since Trump et al. command the heights (or the depths) of the news agenda, very important subjects, conditions and activities not part of this frenzied news feed are relegated to far less frequent attention.
These are just a few of the issues that should be analyzed by print journalists who cover the media full time, such as the estimable Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post, formerly the “public editor” of The New York Times. But then, she also doesn’t return my calls.
The slide toward commercialism and amiable stupefaction will continue on PBS and NPR until enough people review public broadcast’s history, raise their expectation levels consistent with why PBS and NPR were created, and insist on adequate public funding (a truly modest amount compared to giant corporate subsidies by taxpayers). These redirections would enable public broadcasting to fulfill better its serious statutory public interest missions.