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It’s a mistake to use market economics as the sole arbiter of value in public broadcasting

I happen to be casual friends with National Public Radio’s Scott Simon, through my admiration for his eloquence and heart, and via some past writing affiliations.

Shawn Lawrence Otto
Shawn Lawrence Otto

I happen to be casual friends with National Public Radio’s Scott Simon, through my admiration for his eloquence and heart, and via some past writing affiliations. In fact, when I first wanted to let people know about what I saw as the need for a presidential science debate, which eventually transpired online between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, Scott was one of the first people I reached out to.

So naturally, in this digital age, we are now friends on Facebook. The other day as the House passed a bill that would eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting in America, Scott made a Facebook comment about how his beautiful daughters were enjoying the invaluable PBS Kids … and he made a bit of a gentle joke that PBS for Parents sometimes seems more like animals mating and Brits talking or the reverse. Because of the current timing, you can imagine that the Friend comments in response quickly turned to the defunding bill.

One of Scott’s Facebook friends named Robert suggested that “if NPR and PBS are as good as people say then let them prove it. Let’s see if they can make it on their own. If they can — great — if they can’t — then they never had the right stuff to begin with.”

My response to this caused an interesting reaction. I argued that the application of market economics to public broadcasting and to news in general hurts democracy. After several thumbs up, some asked why others, like public broadcasting executives, were not more loudly making these points.  Someone suggested that I be nominated spokesperson for public broadcasting. This would likely not be the best fit. But I’ll reprint the post and you decide if these points deserve a broader hearing, or are the kinds of points public broadcasting officials should be making:

The problem I see with Robert’s thinking is it puts NPR and PBS into the “marketplace of ideas,” a mythological space where news competes successfully with sex, violence, drama and comedy —  the four horsemen of entertainment that have come to pass for “the right stuff” of commercial success. I use them successfully as a screenwriter, but they don’t belong as a part of news.

It is a mistake to use market economics as the sole arbiter of value in public broadcasting. There is no “marketplace of ideas” — it’s a marketplace of emotions, and the confusion of the two is hurting democracy as the fourth estate is forced to compete with entertainment and, quite naturally, resorts to the emotional strategies of a) comedy and b) outrage as packaging vehicles.

The purpose of news is not to tell us what we want to hear or what stimulates us or what reaffirms our views, as Hollywood already does quite successfully, but to tell us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but ought to know about anyway. This is not something that is as broadly commercial, but in a democracy it is vitally important.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is a writer/director and a national science advocate. He is board chair of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and cofounder and CEO of ScienceDebate.org.