Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Episode 10: Defined By Absence

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Episode 10: Defined By Absence questions the many advertisements aired on public radio and television in the United States. Aren't these a violation of definition if nothing else? After all, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was originally formed to provide a format for programs that would not be possible under the commercial broadcast business model. Can an entity created with a sense of being different from more common entities in the business and social ecosystem really be considered in any way different if they engage in the very same behaviors as the commoners? Or should the different entity maintain a sense of purity? I'm leaning toward the latter.

We hear Steve Rendell's report on a serious public radio conflict of interest, originally aired on Counterspin and released December 27, 2013. No, a journalistic entity should never be funded by the very corporate entities it is charged with overseeing through its reporting.

Music in the episode include a performance of John Dowland's "Come again, sweet love doth now invite," Turmoil's "Drowning in the Cesspool," and the Freak Fandango Orchestra's "No Means No."

Finally, many, many thanks to my good and talented friend Susan, whom you listeners should also thank for giving your ears a needed respite from my voice. Variety is good, especially when that variety proves as excellent as Susan's contribution.

5 comments:

  1. I really disliked this episode. So much extremism, so little bullet-biting.

    For one thing, I think you make a mistake in discussing conflicts of interest as if that's part in parcel with advertising, not funding. (You say you'll get back to "that little bit about the funding", but isn't that really the core of the issue? Follow the money, right?) Because of that, you fail to note that acknowledging sponsorship doesn't have a one-sided effect on conflicts of interest. Acknowledgement can exacerbate and mitigate conflicts of interest.

    Just look at the Counterspin piece you quote. Counterspin does some great work where they describe some distortion of facts or argument in the media and trace it back to a conflict of interest. But the particular clip you link to doesn't describe distortion of facts or argument, just a presumptive conflict of interest in a new program. It's at least worth noting that FAIR is hyper-vigilant about this program (before it's even aired?) because the sponsorship was publicly disclosed.

    I hope you're not arguing that anonymous sponsorship only would meet your standard of purity. The water's plenty clear in that case! But is it really an improvement if the metaphorical turd is just very well-dispersed?

    Of course, offering advertising does help draw the large donations that can create conflicts of interest in the first place. But that's not a one-sided decision, either, it's a trade-off. A well-reasoned argument for a "pure" rejection of commercial advertising would quantify the cost of living up to that standard and argue the cost is worth it. It would also compare that with cost and benefit of alternative options. (Your off-hand mention of an ombudsman without getting into what an ombudsman is and how an ombudsman's job directly relates to the sorts of conflicts of interest you're discussing in this very episode was particularly aggravating.)

    A good place to start might be with these budget statistics. Of public radio station operating revenues in the US, 17% comes from corporations, 39% from individual contributions. If you make some really rough assumptions (and put aside the obvious potential problems with the 8% from "foundations" and the 8% from colleges and universities), public radio just needs to cut expenditures by 17% to get rid of ads, or increase individual contributions by about 43%. Maybe they could do that with 50% more on-air fundraising, given diminishing returns? More funding from taxes sounds great, but just wanting more funding from taxes won't fund anything. None of those options is insignificant.

    Alternately, you could just describe a standard of purity, suggest that it should be followed absolutely, and call anyone who doesn't follow it a whore. Surely that is an entertaining and original line of argument.

    (Also, I question the efficacy of refusing to donate to a public radio station unless they take a 17% budget cut in influencing that organization's behavior. Though it might be effective in making you feel good about not donating to an organization whose aims you support and whose services you benefit from. Plus you get to keep the money!)

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  2. Hey, L33t. Thanks for your comment. In large part, you are absolutely correct on your points.

    I am distressed about the marginalization of our public outlets. I do not, though, believe including a more commercial practice will solve the problem, not at all. If anything, adding a more commercial element and goals will just worsen the problem. It will drive contributors (like myself) away, and will increase in scope the problems that already bedevil the commercial outlets.

    So much extremism, so little bullet-biting.

    One challenge I've faced in making these episodes is how much nuance to include. In a 20+ minute format. There really isn't a lot of room for details that, as you point out, mitigate many of the other points being made. For that reason, I've decided to all but downplay nuance in individual episodes and focus on a "standard of purity," as you put it. This is why I included the little sketch at the beginning, which hopefully framed the issue with a touch of levity.

    As to the "bullet biting," I'm confused. Are you referring to a "take your medicine" approach to funding public outlets which would force commercials as at least part of the future?

    I hope you're not arguing that anonymous sponsorship only would meet your standard of purity.

    Nope. As you point out, this would really foul the waters with unknown unknowns in the funding process.

    Also, I question the efficacy of refusing to donate to a public radio station unless they take a 17% budget cut in influencing that organization's behavior.

    I've been amassing examples of funding types, both existing and emerging, from various sources that I plan to address piece by piece in future episodes, including the drawback of individual contributions and other mechanisms (which is really illuminating, IMO). It is in these future episodes that I hope to examine the nuance of public media, facet by facet.

    Alas, given the theme of the pod—expressed pretty clearly in the title—I intend to attack the facets I see as detrimental before suggesting alternate facets that outlets might regard instead. The next episode on this topic (already in the can) will do exactly that.

    As to the money I "get to keep," I don't actually keep it. I have diverted my giving from the "public" radio I used to fund to the podcasts both of us keep on our listening schedule, dollar for dollar. I strongly feel that the outlets that used to get my money should learn from my example, and perhaps explore the commercial-free alternative, perhaps on a show-by-show basis.

    Sadly, though I have communicated this concept—again, one I will discuss on a future episode, and alluded to a bit in this episode—no outlet has responded seriously to my emails. I find this Wall of Silence on the topic more than distressing, so distressing that it was a major sign that something was Wrong Enough to start this 'cast.

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  3. As to the "bullet biting," I'm confused.

    In the philosophical sense seriously analyzing the consequences of a belief.

    given the theme of the pod—expressed pretty clearly in the title—I intend to attack...

    Sure. My complaint was that the attack was less interesting in this episode than in previous episodes, in a way I found frustrating.

    Maybe attacking moderates for not being pure enough is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. And probably jumping to prostitution as a go-to example for unconscionable moral compromise is also a bit annoying.

    As to the money I "get to keep," I don't actually keep it.

    That's an entirely reasonable point. This podcast is clearly a more direct approach to the problem than funding or refusing to fund public radio. My attempt at a humorous dig is undermined, that bit wasn't really honest.

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  4. My complaint was that the attack was less interesting in this episode than in previous episodes, in a way I found frustrating.

    More than any other criticism, being un- (or even less) interesting is a serious breach of faith. Again, I'm on a pretty steep learning curve here, and appreciate it when folks point out when content veers away from the entertaining and into mendacious prattle . . . to which I am, sadly, predisposed.

    I'm not quite sure how to respond to the rest of your points, perhaps simply because I have been for so long investigating alternatives to commercial endorsement in general, many of which apply to public media in particular.

    Without that information as a sign that all is not lost for public media with a less commercial and yet robust future, yes, I concede that my accusation of impurity—which, from a purely definitional standpoint, given the public media charter law from 1967, today's CPS has become—would seem as grating and condescending.

    I hope to start sharing these alternative funding mechanisms soon. (Not in the next two episodes, but perhaps by #13.) Hopefully, with these alternatives in mind, this episode will seem, well, funnier, its grating condescension viewed as the comic device for which it was intended.

    Thanks again for your feedback!

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  5. I look forward to that! (And to this week's episode, which just arrived in my feed!)

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