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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Does Public Broadcasting Have a Problem with Free Speech?

So it seems.

Recent revelations that two high profile CBC TV News host/commentators - Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy - were paid to give speeches to the oil industry. This has created much distress among supporters of public broadcasting in Canada. Quite a few CBC staffers are upset as well.

Mansbridge's speech was appropriately neutral. Murphy's was not. But the impression remains that both could be bought if the price is right.

It has also created much embarrassment among CBC management. None has commented publicly and in the interim, a new policy is supposedly being hammered out in the executive suites.

I was asked by the CBC Radio program, "As It Happens" to comment. My own position is that public broadcasters should be out there, pounding the bully pulpit for the principles of public broadcasting, but with some conditions:

1. They should not take money for doing what is essentially just an extension of their regular jobs.

2. They must never take money from any interest group especially those that the public broadcaster might be reporting on.

3. They should not express personal opinions on matters of public controversy.

CBC is not the only public broadcaster being chagrined by the actions of its employees.

NPR also went through a period of regret when its contract employee Juan Williams appeared on Fox News to state that he is nervous whenever he sees someone at an airport "in Muslim garb." And NPR's chief fund raiser Ron Schiller was pranked and videoed stating that he thought that Tea Party supporters and the Republican Party were racists. Both Williams and Schiller lost their jobs as did the then president of NPR and the Senior VP of News who were fired by the NPR board.

But if public broadcasters never allow their journalists to leave the premises or if they do, to only speak in the vaguest of bromides, what value is there in a neutered public broadcaster, fearful of offending anyone and everyone?

Public broadcasting remains highly valued. So much so that there are extraordinary efforts made by the public and by interest groups, to have THEIR views (and their views alone) heard and endorsed. Interest groups, whether they are advocating for the Keystone pipeline, abortion or the Palestinian cause, feel vindicated whenever their perspectives appear on public broadcasting. For many of these groups, journalistic balance is boring.

Other media also feel the lash of an advocate spurned, but nowhere is the intensity so powerful when the public broadcaster appears to be on one side and not on another.

Yet the purpose of public broadcasting should be to allow for a range of ideas and opinions...opinions presumably from the public and not from the journalists who are paid (often extremely well) to air those voices. Journalists (as opposed to op-ed writers and commentators) must resemble the eunuch in the harem: all the responsibility and none of the pleasures...

If the public broadcaster seems to have lost its way, so has the public. What is missing here is a sense that the public actually understands the purpose of public broadcasting.

And management needs to manage its journalists better to help them understand that their power and presence have consequences that could place public broadcasting in dangerous disrepute.


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