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Sins of Omission: Public Broadcasting Fails to Reach a Broad Cross-Section of America

The Messenger

December 19, 2023

Increasing numbers of Americans get their news from Facebook and Apple but nonetheless, every day, six American television networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and PBS — continue to broadcast a nightly newscast. Only one of these, however, is subsidized by taxpayers. The PBS NewsHour receives direct annual support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); it receives indirect support, as well, insofar as public broadcasting stations across the U.S. receive shares of some $267 million CPB distributes as community service grants to them to operate and broadcast the NewsHour and other PBS and NPR programs.

What are we getting for that money — and who benefits? These are logical questions whenever the government subsidizes something. Such “subventions,” as economists call them, are predicated on the idea of some “market failure” — a desirable good or service is not being provided privately. A good case can be made, in fact, that, notwithstanding there being so many sources of news, the market is not operating well — that there is journalism Americans need but are not getting.

Unfortunately, the taxpayer-subsidized PBS NewsHour is not providing it.

This is not a complaint about liberal bias (at least not only) — although a content analysis of the NewsHour, like one of NPR news, would reflect such bias at the very least in story selection. Stories on threats to abortion rights and the prospects for gun control, for example, are news to the NewsHour; border security is less so. Indeed, toggling between Fox News and the PBS NewsHour is at times like going back and forth between different countries.

This is not to say that the Washington-based newscast does not include conservative Republicans among its interviewees — it does. But, as Pew Research Center has found, the NewsHour is disproportionately trusted by liberals, while its prime-time competitor, Fox News, is a favorite of conservatives. The NewsHour recently devoted a feature on Tariq Trotter’s memoir on a life in hip hop; a search of its past broadcasts, however, finds no feature about Oliver Anthony’s recent country music populist anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond” (though NPR’s Morning Edition did carry a news story about Anthony’s rise in August). I happen to be a fan of David Brooks, who the NewsHour features in its supposedly left-right dialogue segments with the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart. But Brooks is hardly a representative of partisan conservatism.

The key point is this: As a taxpayer-subsidized service, it would, one would hope, attract a cross-section of all Americans, rather than reinforcing polarization by demonstrating appeal to a narrow audience.

But, again, liberal bias is less the concern here. One can certainly detect the same biases in other nightly newscasts. But none of them is taxpayer-subsidized with the goal of providing something the public otherwise would not get. If the NewsHour is to deserve its subsidy, it needs to rethink its offering — specifically to find ways to do what President Bill Clinton once said about his Cabinet, to “look like America.” That means calling on local public media producers — television and radio — to provide stories about communities across the country. (“Radio” today produces video as well as audio.) The guiding principle should be: Would this story be likely to run elsewhere? The answer should be no.

Non-Washington stories should be more than local angles on national narratives, although these have their place. Think here of how border communities feel about illegal immigration, or coastal communities react to rising sea levels. The NewsHour does its share of these stories, but it fails to take advantage of its network of potential “content providers” across the country to produce stories that surprise and provide a window into local conflicts and culture. 

Cultural stories might include regular features on new exhibits mounted by America’s trove of regional art museums. See, for example, the brilliant show at Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, on outsider artist David Ramey’s drawings of the local Black community leveled for urban renewal.

Churches, synagogues and mosques are among the nation’s most important sources of charitable work. What are they doing, and why? I think here of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Dallas megachurch with 40,000 members. It supports a program for affluent folks to mentor young men from urban neighborhoods — through fishing and camping trips, as well as tutoring.  Or that one of the fastest-growing universities in the country is a Christian school in Nashville whose campus is alcohol-free and specializes in preparing graduates to work in the music industry. The Nashville university also requires study of Shakespeare, the Greeks and the Bible, yet students are choosing it in droves. That would surprise non-evangelical viewers on the coasts, who I’d guess dominate the NewsHour’s 1.5 million households watching at some point daily. That trails Fox by about 720,000, by the way. The gap is even larger if one goes by Pew Media numbers, which find just 883,000 viewers for the NewsHour at any given minute.

Local elections — not just the presidential primaries — could provide windows into the issues percolating across the country, and even into potential rising political stars. Elections for county commissioner, school board and city council are often highly contested and reveal what’s going on in a community: zoning disputes, school textbook choices, even who should get a parade permit or what choice of public art is best.

Many other possibilities come to mind. New types of local businesses, although NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman continues to do his part in highlighting these. Photo essay “day in the life” interviews. What’s it like to be a football referee doing Friday Night Lights football games in Texas? Do they ever get threats? Local family and community foundations are supporting programs across the country. What do they identify as key issues and problems in America today? 

This is not a plea for the sort of “good news” stories that are often the “kickers” at the end of traditional newscasts. Instead, it’s a plea that our public media provide an ever-changing, variegated portrait of America — of our political and cultural landscape — and set as a goal reaching a wide geographic and cultural cross-section of America.