The Battle for Big Bird

big birdI want to talk about public broadcasting for a moment. My desire to address this topic arises from the hullabaloo stemming from a comment during the recent presidential debate. In short, candidate Romney made plain his intention to eliminate the PBS subsidy as part of a broader plan to cut wasteful expenditure. His comment was cavalier and the reasoning was questionable. Given the state of political discourse, I wouldn’t expect much more, but this was a bit much even for me.

Let’s start with a basic proposition: public education is not an extravagance.

At some point, humanity managed to organize itself enough to form stable institutions of governance. Early on, one could ask very little from these institutions – protection and dispute resolution (laws) just about did it. As we approached the modern age, progress introduced a broader social contract between citizen and government. Things like clean water, roads, and sanitation became expectations.

Yet humanity did not stop there. The social contract received addenda: retirement assistance, basic health care, and education were added into the mix. The scope and propriety of these newer additions are the subject of substantial debate. I often think that’s the case because these new articles to the contract are not required for survival, just civilization. Intellectually, it is very hard to deny a person life; fewer agree that each person has a right to thrive.

To Educate or Entertain

And so we arrive back at PBS. Public broadcasting has a very clear priority: educate the masses. If people are entertained along the way, that’s an added benefit. No other purveyor of content on television or radio shares this prioritization. For each, the goal is to entertain, and if people happen to be educated along the way, that’s an added benefit so long as it creates shareholder value. Now, before everyone gets all huffy about that statement, you can ask yourself this: If PBS and “mainstream” content providers shared the same prioritization, why do they present information in entirely different manners?

Tolerance of Viewpoint

Another hallmark of public broadcasting is a willingness to engage and consider multiple viewpoints. Are some of the interviewers/reporters/hosts a bit liberal? Yes. Do they wear their preferences on their sleeve at times? Also yes. Does that mean they are ineffective in drawing out an interesting discussion to consider these differences in views? Decidedly not.

I have heard any number of PBS shows where the host clearly disagrees with the guest, but that disagreement is used to foster conversation, not cow the person into submission. Can you imagine this interchange occurring on PBS?