Why America’s Public Media Can’t Do Its Job

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PBS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. melanie.phung/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Christopher Chávez
University of Oregon

When the Trump administration released its proposed budget in March, it suggested eliminating federal funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB). The Conversation

“Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said in defense of the cuts.

Mulvaney seemed to argue that public media was a luxury for the educated few, rather than a truly public resource. Indeed, since the CPB was first established, the degree to which public media reflects the diversity of the nation has the subject of much debate.

But it’s not as simple as Mulvaney makes it out to be. Though the proposed cuts seem unlikely to go through this year, public media will continue to be at the mercy of political and economic factors that have hampered its ability to fulfill its mission and achieve its goals.

A mirror for the nation

When Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to establish a national, publicly funded media system, there were two clear mandates: to cultivate a more engaged citizen and to affirm the nation’s diversity.

In the network’s original mission statement, NPR architect Bill Siemering described public media as a “necessity for citizens in a democratic society to be enlightened participants.” Unbeholden to the demands of the marketplace, public media would ideally be able to reach audiences that might not be targeted by commercial broadcast networks and their advertisers. This included communities traditionally left out of civic discourse: the uneducated, the poor, the housebound, ethnic minorities and those living in rural areas.

“We try to mirror ALL of the country – perhaps the hardest thing of all,” NPR’s former deputy director Rick Lewis said in 1970, describing his vision for “Morning Edition.”

To tackle this challenge, the CPB decided its subsidiaries, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), would have a national reach. Meanwhile, they would cultivate member stations rooted in a diverse range of communities across the country. NPR affiliates based in Fresno, California; Mobile, Alabama; or Erie, Pennsylvania might all carry national programs, but they are also tasked with pursuing local stories.

A precarious funding model

Nonetheless, speaking to the country’s extraordinarily diverse populations through a single media system has proven tricky. And over the years, public media has ended up tailoring its programs to an almost exclusively upscale audience of baby boomers.

The decision to focus on college-educated listeners and viewers is certainly a function of the CPB’s own economic realities. As communications professor Robert McChensney argued in his book “The Political Economy of Media,” American public media has been severely handicapped since its inception.

Unlike the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) – which citizens subsidize by paying an annual television license fee – American public media receives relatively little federal funding, denying it a stable source of income. With federal funding in a constant state of flux, public media has come to rely on income from private sources such as pledge drives and corporate underwriting accounts. For example, in 2015 NPR member stations received about 14 percent of their revenues from federal, state and local entities, while 20 percent came from corporations and 37 percent from private donations.

To be economically viable, therefore, public media must focus on affluent, educated listeners. The result is a media system that can, at times, seem woefully out of the touch with nation it purports to represent.

Just as the country is becoming more ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse (a recent Pew study showed that the U.S. electorate in 2016 was the most diverse in the nation’s history), consumers of national public media remain disproportionately white.

NPR has ambitious aspirations, but its audience still skews old and white. David/flickr, CC BY

According to a 2012 report, the audience for NPR’s member station news programs was 5 percent African-American, 6 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian-American. This disparity is also reflected at the leadership level. In an essay, Joseph Tovares, the senior vice president and chief content officer for the CPB, admitted that the inclusion of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans at the general manager level are almost nonexistent at NPR and PBS member stations.

We see these disparities in the programming itself. Like other national media institutions, public media has traditionally struggled to find a way to include the voices of ethnic and racial minorities. While there are some bright spots – including PBS’s children’s programming and NPR’s Latino USA, the overall diversity efforts seem tepid. In a forum organized by NPR to address public radio’s diversity challenges, sociologist Michael Schudson effectively captured the dilemma:

“No doubt the staff makes an effort to cover issues of special importance to minorities and women, but you suspect that it is a mission and not a habit, and that it feels like a kind of foreign correspondence. You know it can be done well or poorly but, in either case, it is done with the handicap of a largely monochromatic newsroom.”

A wavering commitment to diversity?

Public media realizes that the status quo is a losing strategy. The demographic realities are too sobering. NPR projects that by 2020, its stations’ audience of people younger than 45 will be around 30 percent – half of what that audience accounted for in 1985.

To its credit, the CPB has made broadening its appeal a core part of its current strategy, which includes what it calls the “three D’s”: digital, diversity and dialogue.

However, their own strategic documents provide some insight into just how elastic their definition of inclusion is. For example, NPR’s target audiences still include the “Affluent Business Leader” who is “a c-level employee, has an investment portfolio of $150,000 or more, and holds a leadership position in a club or organization.” Then there’s the “Cultural Connoisseur” who has a postgraduate degree, is more likely to buy tickets for classical music, ballet and opera, and takes more than three vacations a year. For its part, PBS touts the “Power Mom,” who enjoys outdoor activities and spends a significant amount of time online searching for information on museums and concerts.

In other words, these are not the disenfranchised communities whom the original architects of NPR believed would be served by public media.

As journalism professor Ralph Engelman writes in his book “Public Radio and Television in America,” today’s public media was born out of the desire to achieve a more democratic version of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere. Habermas’ notion of what “public” means was criticized as being reserved for propertied, educated males at the exclusion of the poor and disenfranchised. But by serving those already inclined to participate in civic life, it appears that today’s public media extends – rather than disrupts – this pattern.

Just as we’re witnessing unprecedented attacks on the country’s most disenfranchised communities, this seems like an institutional failure. Legislators are advancing policies designed to restrict the movements of Latinos and Muslims. Gains made by the LGBTQ community are being scaled back. There are active efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, eliminate entitlement programs and defund early education programs like Head Start, all of which undermine working-class communities.

Now more than ever, it seems necessary to include the voices – and reach the people – most impacted by these policies. It seems that only by unhitching its funding model from private interests can public media truly fulfill its mission of serving the public at large. But this would require a federal government that’s willing to boost – rather than slash – its funds.

Christopher Chávez, Assistant Professor of Communications, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


There is More Than One Story To Be Told About Muslims in Trump’s America

By January 31, 2017

Let me tell you two stories that happened to two different people. Both concern religion in North America.

Register how you feel about each of them.

Story one: “Why are you not Christian?” a man asks you.

Story two: You wake up to find someone has left a Bible on your doorstep.

Which of these sounds more violent, more threatening to you? Or neither?

Now, imagine yourself a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf in a Western country and repeat the two stories to yourself again. How would you feel?

Now let me complete each story and give you some context.

Story one

“Why are you not Christian?” the man asked, kindly, in broken English.

“We believe in Jesus and the Bible,” I said, wanting to comfort him, “and we have a lot of Christians in Egypt where I come from.”

This happened to me in Houston, Texas around 2007 or 2008. The man was a plumber coming in to fix my sink. He found it difficult to express himself in English but seemed to care about saving my soul, however misguided that was.

It didn’t occur to me to be offended or afraid. This was a time when America was on the cusp of electing either a black president, a female president or at least a female vice president. Houston, despite what all my American friends had told me before I left Egypt, was not a generally racist place to live.

Half of the surgery fellows working with my husband at the Texas Heart Institute were Muslim. Some strangers said “Assalamu Alaikum” (peace be upon you) to me on the streets, or stopped me and my friends to comment on the beauty of our colourful headscarves.

Story two

You wake up to find someone has left a Bible on your doorstep. This happened to a friend in North America, soon after Donald Trump was elected president. She felt it was a threat or a subtle act of violence. She wondered how her neighbours would feel if she placed a Qur’an on their doorsteps.

When I heard my friend’s story, it got me thinking about the possible intentions of the person who placed that Bible on her doorstep.

I trust that my friend’s feeling of being threatened was real in that context. But I wondered if the story might have been different. What if the story had included a note inside the Bible, showing who had left it, or giving an invitation to exchange holy books?

What if the Bible on the doorstep had been the beginning of a dialogue rather than a way to scare someone away? And if the person who left the Bible on my friend’s doorstep didn’t have bad intentions, why didn’t they do it in person and look her in the eye?

What does a Bible on a doorstep mean?

Context and power

There are differences between story one and two, chief among them are context and power. The political context and who the actors are make a difference to the story. An elderly, Hispanic plumber fixing my sink? Not a threat to my 20-something self in Houston, accompanying my surgeon husband doing a fellowship at a prestigious nearby hospital.

Had I been asked the same question by a white man, in an angry voice, in another context, my reaction would probably have been very different.

I am telling this story in the era where we are lamenting the rise of fake news and exploring our roles as educators to respond to it, as if a technical solution to figuring out if something is a lie will fix our problems. It won’t. Because it’s not a technical problem.

Education and understanding

Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US is not fake news. It’s real news. And as a community, we have to deal with it.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said:

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly’. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story”.

The media does this all the time. So do politicians – we see Donald Trump right now, talking about banning Iraqi refugees and immigrants from entering the US, without mentioning the role of his country in causing the instability that motivated the immigration in the first place.

Adichie also says:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”.

In my view, the best way to ensure that we and our children see more than the stereotypical story about people who are different from us is to expose them and ourselves to multiple stories. The bare minimum is to expose ourselves to other cultures on their own terms.

So, for example, we don’t learn about Native Americans from Pocahontas or from Western films. We learn from Native Americans themselves. If we don’t have direct access to them (I live a long way away in Egypt), find them online. Read or listen or even, if you’re lucky, converse.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m Muslim, talking about Muslims in America. What brought this on? But in the midst of my concern over Muslims in America, I also noticed Trump’s presidential memo to advance approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, I can see the injustice in this, and the irony: on the one hand, a “nation of immigrants” that is neither honouring immigrants, nor honouring the original residents of this land.

We will always have blind spots towards cultures that are unfamiliar to us. But the more deeply we establish understanding of the “other”, the more we try to empathise, with social justice as our underlying value, the more likely we are to become empathetic, critical, global citizens. As educators, we must expand and diversify the people in our in-groups, and help students do this too.

Education expert Sean Michael Morris, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, urged us to change the way we teach. He wrote:

“An education that convinces us of what needs to be known, what is important versus what is frivolous, is not an education. It’s training at best, conscription at worst. And all it prepares us to do is to believe what we’re told”.

This goes for parents and mentors as well as those of us in more formal teaching roles.

Building empathy

The best way not to believe what we’re told is not to go fact-checking each and every thing we hear. Instead, I propose we start building our ability to understand people who are different from us, in context, rather than relying on harmful stereotypes. To know them as individuals, as they would like to be known, not as some dominant power (or US president) has decided we shall know them.

This is not quick or simple. But it can allow us to form a view of the world that rises above deception and to see what’s important in our humanity. And it will change the way we vote. When we empathise with others, we imagine how our decisions can impact them.

Remember those two stories I mentioned earlier? Back in 2007 and 2008, I felt comfortable and safe praying in a mosque in Houston. Now, I would not, given the latest news of Islamophobic violence in mosques coming from North America, most recently the terrorist attack on a mosque in Quebec City that left six people dead.

My friend with the Bible on her doorstep, a dual citizen, was unable to attend a conference in the US a few days ago.

But that isn’t the biggest tragedy. The tragic stories are those of families torn apart by this executive order. Parents who cannot reach their children. What we need now, more than ever, is empathy.

The Conversation

Maha Bali, Associate Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

Regulated Institutions to Submit Self-Assessments of Diversity Policies and Practices

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
August 2, 2016
The federal banking agencies today provided information on how the financial institutions they regulate may begin to submit self-assessments of their diversity policies and practices as of year-end 2015, and issued Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the process.Financial institutions are strongly encouraged to disclose on their websites their diversity policies and practices, as well as information related to their self-assessments, to maximize transparency, and to provide their policies, practices, and self-assessment information to their primary federal financial regulator. Additional information, with detailed submission instructions, will be provided at a later date directly to the institutions.

Section 342 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act required the federal financial regulatory agencies to establish an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI) and instructed the OMWI Director at each agency to develop standards for assessing the diversity policies and practices of its regulated institutions.

The standards, which became effective on June 10, 2015, reflect input received during a public comment period, as well as information gathered during outreach sessions. The standards provide a framework for regulated institutions to assess and establish or strengthen their diversity policies and practices.

The standards are intended to promote transparency and awareness of diversity policies and practices within the institutions. On July 13, 2016, the agencies announced that the Office of Management and Budget had approved the collection of the voluntary self-assessment information. The information may be used by the agencies to monitor diversity and inclusion trends and identify leading policies and practices in the financial services industry.

A list of Frequently Asked Questions and Answers is attached and also is available on the websites of the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) — Standards for Assessing the Diversity Policies and Practices of Entities Regulated by the Agencies (PDF)