Our Commitment to Public Interest Media
May 18, 2016 | Speech | Journalism & Media

The following speech, as prepared for delivery, was given by MacArthur President Julia Stasch at the PBS annual meeting on May 18, 2016.

Paula, thank you.  Thank you for inviting me to be part of the PBS family, if only for today.  I will use my short time with you to share some thoughts about our world today, consider again the notion of “public” as in public broadcasting and public interest, announce what the MacArthur Foundation will do in the next chapter of its enduring commitment to journalism and media, and affirm something that I am confident you know—that now is the time for you to double down on your original mission.  

First, however, like virtually every person alive, I loved Downton Abbey; its characters, its costumes; the twists and turns of the stories.  In fact, as I look at the turmoil in the United States and abroad these days, I am with Lady Violet when she says, “I harken for a simpler world” and asks, “Is that a crime?”

Today’s world is anything but simple. Sometimes, it feels barely understandable. The common good—the public interest—is too often lost in a scramble for personal or corporate advantage. Truth is losing its currency. Facts are up for grabs. In the midst of the noise, people seeking answers do not know what – or whom – to believe.

Many of America’s institutions are under fire. This is one of the most polarized times in our history. Confidence in politics, government, the courts, schools and the media is near an all-time low. Constructive criticism essential to the health of the republic is turning into doubt and cynicism. For evidence, we can look to the national political campaign. Or we can look down the street to the overburdened Chicago public school system or the state capital in Springfield. Ten months into the fiscal year, Illinois has no budget and is not paying its bills.

Without effective government and a sense of collective endeavor, roads don’t get built. Bridges don’t get fixed. Schools don’t improve. Low-income communities remain isolated. Anger rises, opening the door to demagoguery. No progress is made on the day-to-day elements of a good quality of life, much less on the grander goals worthy of a country that likes to think of itself as a shining city on a hill.

At another challenging time for the country, Lyndon Johnson introduced the Public Broadcasting Act in November 1967. Nearly 500,000 U.S. troops were fighting in Vietnam and protests against the war were growing at home. Riots in Newark and Detroit that year had left more than 60 people dead and the Kerner Commission was beginning the research that would lead to its sobering conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

President Johnson saw the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as a landmark and he understood the value of independence as the for-profit television companies came into their own. He promised that the new entity would be strong and free, and he implored the men and women who would lead this new endeavor to “direct that power toward the great and not the trivial.”

I believe he would be pleased today if you could answer a resounding yes to the following questions: 

  • Are you devoting all the smarts and resources you can to high-quality programming that fuels civic engagement and strengthens our democracy?
  • Are you doing all you can to explain complex issues and hold leaders and their institutions to account?
  • Do you illuminate important topics that are little understood?
  • Do you include the voices of marginalized populations poorly served by commercial media?

Those questions go to the heart of the meaning of “public” for the Public Broadcasting System, and they signify the obligations and opportunities that come with the turf.

At MacArthur, we spend a lot of time thinking about shared social goals and the public good. We struggle to figure out what we should do to make the greatest possible difference.  Time and again, the solutions revolve around the need to help move us all closer to bedrock democratic ideals.  And we know that is not possible without people in this country who are informed, empathetic, activated and thinking critically.  

So, at MacArthur, similar questions guide our thinking about support for journalism and media.

  • Are we devoting all the leadership and resources we can to supporting the creation and distribution of high-quality content that fuels civic engagement and strengthens our democracy?
  • Are we doing all we can to support organizations that explain complex issues and hold leaders and their institutions to account?
  • Do we support programming that explains important topics that are little understood?
  • Do we make sure to help amplify the voices of marginalized populations poorly served by commercial media?

We have supported forward-looking, nonprofit media for 33 years because we believe that fiercely independent inquiry and clear-eyed analysis strengthens our republic. We know from experience that nonprofit news organizations and narrators of all types, freed from commercial and partisan pressures, will deliver important stories that otherwise not be discovered and shared.  And the nation is better for it.

In search of more transformative change and deeper impact, we are making just a few of what we call big bets that progress can be made on profound, even existential challenges—climate change, nuclear risk, and mass incarceration in the US. 

And, in an announcement we are making today, with increased resources, we are affirming our enduring commitment to journalism and media—to explanatory and investigative journalism and nonfiction storytelling at its best, represented here by POV, Independent Lens, America Reframed and Firelight Media; work that is deep, fair and compelling; work that informs and inspires; work that can make a difference.

In a new direction, we want to help develop and support the field of civic or citizen journalism that is often the most purely “public” of all media forms. Much is said and written about young people and their use of social media.  We want to support and accelerate their use of media specifically for civic purposes.

Five-year, completely unrestricted general operating grants are one of our tools for investing in groundbreaking nonprofit news organizations, from FRONTLINE to the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Deepening our commitment to global reporting, we are supporting the Global Press Institute’s work in training local women to report from its 21 foreign news desks.
As part of a larger commitment, a dozen nonprofit news organizations will receive a total of $25 million in general operating support grants designed first and foremost to foster editorial independence and innovation. Indeed, unrestricted support is a cornerstone of our approach and sadly often distinguishes us from others in the field today. This flexible money strengthens an organization in numerous ways. It allows leaders to hire and retain talent, and the no-strings certainty of the funding helps creative leaders take calculated risks on coverage and innovative approaches to audiences.

With this renewed and expanded commitment to journalism and media:

  • We aim to strengthen and diversify the independent media ecosystem that fuels public awareness and informed conversations across the country.
  • We want to make sure that an ever-widening array of voices and perspectives finds its way into every medium.
  • We want to promote traditional and new forms of non-fiction storytelling, and
  • We will encourage producers to find fresh ways of reaching audiences, wherever they are.

This is our answer to the questions I posed earlier.

What is your answer?  Are you fulfilling the promise and ambition of public broadcasting at its birth?
Are you making your best work available – and easily accessible – on tablets, desktops and smartphones? Do you have a social media strategy that keeps up with the ever-changing habits of news consumers, especially young people? Are you identifying audiences that are not traditional viewers of public television and finding creative ways to reach them?

PBS and its affiliates are the nation’s storytellers. In these difficult times, our nation needs PBS and its 350 member stations to wade into the tumult and emerge with stories that are clear, credible and enlightening.  We need stories and programs that explore complexity and expose ideas to light. Programs that feature a spectrum of faces and voices that are otherwise unseen and unheard.

Every public television station in the country needs to find fresh ways to dig, to reveal and to explain – and to meet audiences where they are. If you do not do this, who will? Not local commercial television. Barely two-thirds of stations nationwide produce their own news and those that do rarely go deep. The viewing public can live but it cannot thrive on a diet of crime, sports and weather alone.

And, not daily newspapers. They’re not doing it, either, or at least not enough. In their battle to stay afloat, legacy media are cutting staff and scaling back their ambitions.  Both of my grandfathers were reporters in the heyday of Chicago’s lively newspaper wars. I wonder if they would find work today.

It is you—public broadcasting; all across the country—that must expand into the vacuum, if our leaders and our institutions are to be held accountable and our fellow citizens are to be informed and inspired. I urge you to find room on your weekly broadcast schedules and your websites for more programming in the urgent, real public interest. I encourage you, in the next year and beyond, to find money for at least one local project or beat that you are not covering now.  If you can’t add staff, why not collaborate with other news organizations in town, with a journalism school, or a nonprofit?  There is much you can do.

Both PBS and MacArthur need to keep asking, are we doing all we can to help ensure that people are informed, empathetic, activated and thinking critically? Are we doing all we can to help make democratic ideals a reality in the lives of all Americans? 
Thank you.

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