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Putting NPR on the spot


>Why is it that so many progressive and anti-war people are listening to NPR and yet are viscerally frustrated and pissed off with the network? Robert Jensen, noted journalism professor, media critic and activist from the University of Texas at Austin posed this question to a crowd of 90 citizens--including some staff and board members from WUNC radio--Saturday morning at the Chapel Hill Library. His answer: "People still listen because there are just not a lot of options for public affairs programming out there, but they are not finding their own concerns and needs being met."

Jensen said commercial news and public affairs media have systematically failed, especially in times of war, to provide three things democracy needs from journalists: A source of factual information that is independent from the state and corporate power; social, historical, and political context; and the widest range of analysis and opinions. Public media's mission needs to be to provide what the market doesn't, and it is failing to do that.

NPR and PBS tend to counter with "you are asking us to be advocacy journalists and that is not what we do. We are objective journalists." But Jensen says he is not asking that they be advocacy journalists, though that is a fine and very defensible tradition practiced in most other democracies. What he wants is a public media that frees itself of the truth-distorting effects of the politically restricted set of journalism's institutionalized professional practices that dictates which events become news, how they are reported on, how they are framed, who becomes a credible source, and who doesn't.

These practices now include a peculiar notion of "balance" that frames the debate on the war between currently serving military officers vs. retired military officers, state department officials vs. retired state department officials, and so on. There are exceptions. Other voices occasionally get through. But it is the overall pattern that matters.

Jensen said that the reasons that public media are failing to provide better information for the public debate is not only this pseudo-professional construction of journalistic practices, but also the history of the attacks on public media during the Reagan years and the fact that government has been systematically cutting funding for public media, with the result that they have turned increasingly to corporate advertising (called underwriting" by public broadcasting).

Jensen feels that public media have not realized the increased funding potential of people who care about the accuracy and range of public affairs reporting.

Joan Siefert Rose, the WUNC-FM station manager, said she agreed with much of what Jensen said and that her station works hard at being open and accessible. Two of the groups sponsoring the talk, Balance and Accuracy in Journalism and the Committee for Media in the Public Interest, have been pressing her and the station for more comprehensive local news and programming as well as better choices in national programming, such as Alternative Radio, Counterspin, and Democracy Now. Pete MacDowell is a founding member of the Committee for Media in the Public Interest. He can be reached at 919-968-9184 or macdowell@poetworld.net

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