Public Media Journalists Should Speak Against Funding Cuts

This is a sticky topic, and I hope I don’t raise the ire of too many of my colleagues on this one.

I saw a question posed recently about whether public radio journalists should be actively involved in the public broadcasting defunding debate, particularly with any activity that would involve publicly expressing displeasure about the funding cut proposal (this would include contacting congressional representatives).

Feedback has been minimal, but the consensus was that journalists should stay out of it to avoid any perceived conflicts.

I very, very respectfully disagree.

Full disclosure: I spent more than a decade as a public radio news director, and I’m now a full-time university faculty member. I will always consider myself to be a journalist, and I will always place a special significance on the importance of public broadcasting. So please allow me to say “we” when discussing this issue.

We must speak out. Taking a stand against these cuts is taking a stand for our own livelihood. It’s taking a stand for the millions who rely on public broadcasting. You can be a rock-solid journalist, fair and impartial, and still fight for your professional life. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, and our listeners will understand. In fact, I think they should expect it.

One of the traditional tenets of journalism is to be a check on power and elitism. How can we seriously expect to have any credibility when we say that we’ll stand with the weak if we’re not willing to stand for ourselves? This federal funding cut proposal is wrong, misguided, vindictive. It targets a very specific group (that would be us) and it breaks a promise the country made to itself more than 40 years ago when it created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to both support public broadcasting in America and to shield it against political opportunism.

I don’t think this is an issue about impartiality. A journalist is not an automaton and cannot be expected to live that way. Even now, we have highly respected journalism organizations — and journalists! — who are speaking out against the violence our colleagues have encountered during the recent unrest in north Africa and the Middle East. I feel that it’s our duty to speak out against these threats with a united voice. Is it impartial? No. Is it important? Yes.

Now, public broadcasting and its unique style of journalism is facing a real threat in the United States. Shouldn’t we speak out about this, as well?

I say yes, we should.

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