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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Constitutes "Objectivity and Balance" in Public Broadcasting?

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has a long and honored role in American public broadcasting. Created by an act of Congress in the late 1960's, CPB's role was and still is to act as a financial, programming and moral midwife, helping to give birth to a new set of public broadcasting values. It was also to act as an agency of civic journalism and high standards that would complement the best of commercial broadcasting.

Created as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" program, CPB was initially conceived as supporting public television only. Public radio was added to its mandate, as an afterthought. Public radio people came to Washington DC to lobby that radio be included in the founding document. According to lore, these radio guerillas added "radio" into the Act, unbeknownst to the writers of the original legislation. With radio as a legislative "fait accompli," Congress simply adopted it without looking too closely at it. Apparently the public tv advocates were outraged when they discovered that their mandate had been changed.

Over the years, CPB was given an annual budget by Congress and monies would be allocated to stations and independent producers to create the best and most innovative programming possible.

Even though Congress had editorial and financial oversight, there remained an official obligation to maintain good journalistic standards. By 1992, under pressure from conservatives in Congress, this was codified into the updated legislation as an affirmative obligation to maintain "objectivity and balance in public broadcasting."

More recently, CPB found itself under attack again from Congressional conservatives. To define what exactly are standards of "objectivity and balance," CPB asked for submissions from academics and others to help frame the discussion.

My colleague Professor Alan Stavitsky from the University of Oregon, and I co-wrote two white papers for CPB addressing these issues. Both are on the CPB website.

One is entitled "The Accountable Guardian: Concepts in Tension - The Challenge of Ensuring both Objectivity and Balance and Editorial Independence."

The other is "Objectivity and Balance: Conceptual and Practical History in American Journalism."

The aim is to help define the debate about how public radio and television can provide reliable information in order to best serve the American public in the age of the internet.

Thoughts and comments appreciated.

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