By Dave Wheelock
So now, through the decidedly un-savvy firing of news analyst Juan Williams by National Public Radio president Vivian Schiller, those who speak for the “haves” of this country have their latest entrée in their long war to not just influence public opinion, but to monopolize it. According to NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik, Williams was let go not so much for making remarks that could be interpreted as prejudiced toward Muslims - “when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." - but for expressing his opinion at all. In other words, Folkenflik explained, “eliciting opinions is the role of NPR news analysts and journalists, not expressing them.”
The debate over objectivity in news media will probably rage forever, but like the layers of an onion there’s more to the Juan Williams flap than meets the eye or ear, especially those tuned to commercial news. You’re not likely to discover these back stories among the talking heads of corporatized broadcasting, yet that’s the real point. For those who would do away with publically-funded media, the only theme really worth trumpeting in this story is the unacceptability of forcing citizens to pay for liberally biased programming with their tax dollars.
Liberal bias? Compared to what? Analysis of the Public Broadcasting System’s television news and public affairs programs by media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documents that “public television is failing to live up to its mission to provide an alternative to commercial television.” In its November 2010 issue of Extra! magazine, FAIR reports that so-called public television “features guest lists strongly dominated by white, male and elite sources, who are far more likely to represent corporations and war makers than environmentalists or peace advocates.”
I’d wager many if not most Americans, like Juan Williams, “get worried, get nervous” when they see the terms “environmentalists” and “peace activists” used in the same sentence. Why might that be? Are those who are greatly concerned about the Earth and/or don’t believe violence solves problems really radical subversives, or does their enforced absence from public dialog just make them easy targets for those who profit from their invisibility? And if systematic exclusion works on treehuggers and hippies, Muslims are a slam dunk.
So-called conservative politicians were bound to leap at this red-meat excuse to renew their historical demands to cease all government funding for non-commercial media, and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint hasn’t disappointed. “We can't keep borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars from China each year to fund public radio and public TV when there are so many choices already in the market for news and entertainment. If CPB is defunded, taxpayers will save billions.” I can’t help thinking that in a more honest world, DeMint would have said “there are so many choices already in the market for news AS entertainment.”
Despite the heroic volume of outrage welling up inside Mr. DeMint, he can’t change the fact that public broadcasting in the United States is funded at an abysmal level compared to other developed countries. In an October 21 article by Josh Silver, president of Free Press (like FAIR a source worth bookmarking), each U.S. citizen contributes one dollar and forty-three cents toward public media per year.
In Canada, it’s $22, and in England, $80. Further, “if the United States spent the same per capita on public media and journalism subsidies as Sweden and Norway . . . we would be spending . . . $30 billion a year on public media instead of $440 million.” Silver goes on to note these two countries rank near the top of the decidedly not-liberal Economist magazine’s annual Democracy Index, in which the U.S. ranks 18th.
On the subject of democracy, it was that early radical subversive James Madison who said “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.” The United States has a long tradition of government support for media, first expressed in free postage for newspapers from the time of independence. Many of those who seek to end this tradition are the same monopolists who argue for the privatization of education, another path leading down the slippery slope to unaccountable corporate control of how and what we are allowed to know. I can’t imagine we can afford to borrow millions from China to support public libraries much longer, either.
Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation, is a collegiate sports administrator and rugby coach. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. Wheelock’s opinions are not necessarily those of the Mountain Mail.