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Time to Enforce Balance at PBS, NPR


House-approved legislation to end federal funding for public broadcasting (about $430 million this year) might not make it into whatever budget-cutting plan the House and Senate ultimately adopt. If it doesn’t, Congress still will have a duty to fulfill regarding oversight of public broadcasting.
 
Unknown to many NPR listeners or Public Broadcasting Service viewers, the parent Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the congressionally-created entity that funnels taxpayers’ money to the networks — is required by law to ensure “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”
 
Unnoticed by many members of Congress, CPB has done no such thing. In the corporation’s 41 years, it has not found a single program or series on a controversial topic to have violated the objectivity and balance standard. Such a record is as plausible as a meter maid who, after more than four decades on the job, never wrote a ticket for overtime parking.
 
In 2004, CAMERA, the 65,000-member Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, urged CPB to implement the corporation’s 2002 board resolution pledging to uphold the objectivity and balance standard. This could be done at little or no additional cost, we said, simply by assigning a staff member or two the responsibility of reviewing substantive complaints according to traditional journalism standards. These include accuracy, objectivity, balance, comprehensiveness, context, and willingness to promptly correct errors.
 
CAMERA had documented over several decades a pattern of anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian bias in NPR news coverage. Much of it followed the “stacked-deck” format: Even when the number of Israeli and Arab sources was roughly even, virtually all the Arab and many of the Israeli voices cited criticized Jerusalem while official or representative Israelis received little rebuttal time. This chronically left “balanced” programs skewed.
 
So pronounced was the tilt during the “al-Aqsa intifada,” for example, that 11 Democratic members of the House complained in a 2003 letter to NPR of “imbalanced coverage” and “lack of context.”
 
Instead of tasking staff members with objectivity and balance oversight, CPB created two ombudsmen. This provided a specific address for listener complaints but the ombudsmen — outside contractors, not corporation staffers — lack authority to punish violators. Generically, journalistic ombudsman too often function as institutional shock absorbers rather than audience advocates.
 
In 2005, CPB’s own Inspector-General recommended that the agency upgrade its objectivity and balance oversight. More than five years later this has not happened. Instead, the corporation remains sunk in consultation with public broadcasters and journalism professors over how to deal with the I-G’s recommendation.
 
Many public broadcasters resent the federal objectivity and balance statute even while taking federal funds. Journalism faculty, some from the world of public broadcasting, advise that in the digital era airing “competing narratives” somehow trumps journalism’s who, what, when, where, why and how in providing objectivity and balance.
 
The same statute that requires CPB to oversee NPR, PBS and other fund recipients for objectivity and balance forbids pre-broadcast censorship. Fine. But if in post-broadcast review, the work of an outside producer or NPR or PBS staff is found to have violated the standard, CPB itself must be able to slap a ticket on the offender’s windshield, especially for repeaters. The ticket should say “no more tax money for you.”
 
Of course, that means CPB actually will have to carry out such reviews. And Congress will have to insist on it. Finally.
 
NPR says it gets little direct federal funding. It doesn’t say that tens of millions of its $154 million annual budget comes from CPB money given to affiliated stations that then pay NPR for programming.
 
Proposals to end federal funding of public broadcasting may or may not become law. The objectivity and balance requirement already is. It should have been enforced decades ago. It’s not too late to start — and transparent enforcement might convince wavering members of Congress that, even in the face of massive debt, public broadcasting still deserves their support.
 
The above column was published by USA Today online on March 4, 2011.

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