Jun 28 1999

Public TV More Corporate, Less Public Than Ever

New Study

A new study of news and public affairs programming on PBS stations has found that the voice of business is much louder than all others — a troubling finding for a broadcast system established to “provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.” Four years after Congressional leaders failed to “zero out” public TV, the study suggests that the cost of survival has been increasing commercialism, a persistent elite bias and the marginalization of many of the groups in society that the system was intended to serve.

The independent academic study, “The Cost of Survival: Political Discourse and the ‘New PBS,'” was conducted by Prof. William Hoynes of Vassar College. It examined all of the regular public affairs programming — news, talk/interview, business and documentary — during a two-week period between November 30 and December 13, 1998. The study analyzed a total of 75 separate programs, including 276 stories and 651 on-camera sources. It will be published this summer in Extra!, FAIR’s magazine.

Hoynes concludes: “Instead of wide-ranging discussions and debates, the kinds that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences, public television provides programs that are populated by the standard set of elite news sources. This insider orientation makes it hard to define what, outside of the one-hour length of the evening news and the documentary format, defines public television as innovative, independent or alternative.”

“The Cost of Survival” updates Hoynes’ 1992 study, also released by FAIR (Aug. ’93), which found that public TV relied on a narrow spectrum of sources and experts. This bias has become even more pronounced in recent years.

Some key findings:

CORPORATE VOICE: More than one-third of all on-camera sources (36.3%) during the two weeks studied were representatives of corporate America or Wall Street. This almost doubled the percentage found in the 1992 study. (pp. 10-11)

GENDER: News sources on public affairs programs are largely male: Just 21.5% of sources in the study sample were women — less than the 23.1% found in the 1992 study. Female sources tend to appear in specific types of stories, especially on social issues like health, family, religion and sexuality. Women constitute a majority (56.5%) of sources in stories on social issues, though that’s largely due to one program, the all-women discussion show To the Contrary. (pp. 14-16)

POLITICS: Coverage of domestic political issues featured the views of government officials (50.2%), professionals (31.2% — overwhelmingly journalists) and corporate/Wall Street representatives (11%), with very few contributions from any other social group. Consumer, environmental or labor advocates, for example, were almost invisible. (pp. 13-14)

ECONOMICS: Public TV coverage of the economy is, more than any other topic, dominated by one social sector: the business class. Fully 75% of the sources in economic stories were from the corporate or investment world. By contrast, labor union representatives (1.5% of sources), consumer advocates (0.4%), non-professional workers (1.1%) and the general public (1.8%) were virtually invisible in economic stories. “Economic coverage,” writes Hoynes, “is so narrow that the views and activities of most citizens become irrelevant.” (pp. 11-12)

BUSINESS PROGRAMS: The bias in favor of corporate voices is partly due to the expansion of business news on public television, with many PBS stations now airing two daily business news programs, plus at least two regular weekly business programs. Hoynes writes: “In answer to the question ‘If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?’ this kind of business programming is readily available on CNNfn, CNBC, Bloomberg and other television channels, along with the business press and the Internet. It behooves public television stations to evaluate the reasons why they broadcast programs that are widely available elsewhere, appeal to such a limited audience, and are so narrow in their definition of sources and subjects.” (p. 25)

INTERNATIONAL: Only 5.4 % of all stories focused on international affairs — a decrease from 11.7% in the 1992 study. The Middle East was the only international topic that was the subject of more than two stories in this sample. Ironically, during the period of this study, Freedom Speaks — a weekly show covering media topics — featured a segment on how commercial news pays so little attention to international stories, and suggested that, due to the absence of commercial pressures, public TV could provide an alternative by focusing more regularly on global issues. (p. 8)

CITIZEN ACTIVISTS: Citizen activists (a broad category encompassing anyone of any stripe active in community, religious, health, environmental, ethnic/racial issues, etc.) accounted for only 4.5% of total sources. This was a decrease from 5.9% in 1992. Citizen activists “appear with such relative infrequency — for example, there is no regular labor voice in discussions of the economy and no regular consumer perspective in debates about anti-trust policy — that they cannot help but be marginal, if intriguing, participants in the public discourse.” (pp. 16-17)

THE PUBLIC: Only 5.7% of total sources are members of the general public — a decrease from 1992’s 12%. “Another method of opening up the discourse,” writes Hoynes, “is to allow real people to participate in debate and discussion.” One edition of “Morning Business Report” referred to the views of “average Americans,” but these were later revealed to be “investors,” polled in a survey about investment and economic questions. (pp. 17-18)

IMPEACHMENT: The single biggest story during the period studied was impeachment, then under debate in the House. Almost all of the sources were current or former government officials (70%) or journalists from major news outlets (21%). “Public television’s impeachment coverage largely mirrored that of its commercial counterparts,” Hoynes writes. “Alternative perspectives and voices of the public were neglected, while debates among and forecasts by members of the political class provided the only lens for viewing the unfolding story.” (pp. 18-20)

MERGERS & LAYOFFS: A case study of public TV coverage of corporate mergers and layoffs — a significant news story during the two-week period — showed that the main focus was on how investors were affected. Stories on mergers/acquisitions and anti-trust policy were dominated by corporate viewpoints, with only one appearance by a citizen activist and none by members of the public. Coverage of corporate layoffs and unemployment was similarly narrow: 86% of the sources were corporate or Wall Street representatives. Not a single representative of organized labor appeared in public TV’s discussion of corporate mergers or of layoffs. (pp. 20-22)

In releasing the Hoynes study, FAIR program director Janine Jackson commented: “In survival mode for so long fending off conservative attacks, public television seems to have forgotten its original mission to ‘help us see America whole, in all its diversity’ and to be ‘a forum for controversy and debate.’ Public TV was going to be different, free of the ‘top down’ conventions that define news as the activities and opinions of the elite. This study reveals public TV’s programming to be little different in substance than that on commercial TV.”

Professor Hoynes places the problem of narrowing news and public affairs perspectives in context. “The increasing commercialization of the system — including the growth of corporate sponsored PBS-related world wide web sites — suggests that the public-as-citizens approach is taking a backseat to the public-as-market model at the ‘new PBS.'”

In the final words of the study, Hoynes asserts: “In the emerging digital age, despite the temptations of commercialization, public television can be a valuable democratic resource if its leadership takes seriously its founding mission to broadcast programs that include fresh perspectives, expand dialogue, welcome controversy and serve all segments of the public.”