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Q&A With CPB’s Ernest Wilson III

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's newly elected chairman, Ernest Wilson III, says he doesn't want to dance on the graves of old media. But he thinks a multiplatform, locally-focused noncommercial media have an opportunity to fill a journalistic vacuum created by the decline of traditional news outlets.

He should know about the state of journalism. Wilson is the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. He also knows more than a little about the CPB board as its longest-serving member (since his 2000 appointment by President Bill Clinton).

He is the first African American to hold that post, and while he says that shouldn't be the lead on his story, it does inform his views. Those include the belief that noncommercial media—which he would like to rebrand as “public service media”—are brought to you by the letter D, which stands for dialog, digitalization and diversity.

Wilson spoke with B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton not long after his Sept. 16 election to head the private, nonprofit corporation that oversees the government's investment in public-service media.

Can you give us the ‘CPB for Dummies’ version of what the organization does?

You know the legislation as well as I do and the things it is supposed to do about helping public service media serve underserved markets and support education and culture.

But I think that the question that you ask has to be re-asked and re-answered in a digital environment. We certainly have good guidance from the 1967 legislation [that established CPB].

But I think we are at another 1967 moment, when the stars are aligned and more and more people are asking that question and trying to come up with answers that are true to the original formulation, but also take cognizance of 40-plus years of technological evolution and social change that have happened since then.

I think this is a really exciting time to be asking that question. I think NPR, local stations, PBS are trying to figure out the answer.

What do noncommercial media need to do to stay relevant?

Chris Boskin, the previous chair, and I have been [engaged in] a process over the past 18 months where we partnered with the Aspen Institute to convene some of the leaders of the system to talk about exactly this issue, and we identified some opportunities and challenges.

The challenges were the fairly obvious ones, like the silo-ization of public service media like private media at a time when technological convergence is really driving a lot of the new thinking and content creation.

Second, even before the economic crisis, a lot of the stations were suffering from a business model that was no longer viable as it once was, especially on the television side.

Third, there is the pipeline channel where you have a number of leading station managers and leaders in the system retiring soon who need to be replaced.

The way we have answered that at the board of CPB is to say we want to provide unique services in working with local stations and other stakeholders to provide what we uniquely can provide for the American people, which we call the three Ds: dialog, digitalization and diversity.

We're looking more specifically at how you think CPB should be spending government money on public broadcasting in this economic crisis? Where is the best place for it to put its dollars?

There is a short-term answer and a medium-to-long-term answer. The short-term answer is we are trying to help local stations, for example, out in Springfield, Ill., to weather this terrible economic crisis that is whacking everybody. A new fund has been created to help stations—very short term, very modest amounts of money—to respond to these immediate crises.

Secondly, in terms of content, if you look at what is being done around the mortgage crisis, CPB helped to sponsor some activities that would help people trying to understand the mortgage crisis go to a site where they could get information. Very practical assistance.

So, in the short term, we are trying to provide some additional resources. But over the medium-term, I think we have to take advantage of what I call the 1967 moment. In 1967 President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. But that happened because the Carnegie Foundation and Republican and Democratic senators and a whole variety of stakeholders came together, growing out of educational television, and said we want to do something broader and bolder with greater vision to better serve the American people.

I think the stars are similarly aligned today. When I talk to people at public stations, they say they really do want to reinforce and advance the mission of public service media.

In order to do that, we have reauthorization coming up, and to have an effective reauthorization, we have to answer the question, What is the unique value of noncommercial media? And if we can articulate that vision, which I think is doable but requires a lot of consultation and dialog, then we can educate and inform the Congress about what we are doing.

That, in turn, I hope would lead to not just higher appropriations but new ways of funding and thinking about funding public service media.

Is that funding sufficiently insulated from politics?

There are proposals that would create a separate trust fund, or provide user fees on certain platforms, like the BBC system. Under reauthorization, a lot of these things are going to be on the table. So, is there an adequate heat shield? Absolutely. Could we do more that would take away the annual trek to the Hill with hearings? I think there is room for improvement there, and I think that is probably the feeling at the White House, on the Hill and at the stations as well.

How does public broadcasting justify its existence in the digital age?

I have come to appreciate more and more, as the dean of a journalism and communications school, that in my city, L.A., we are seeing the slow decline of a great American newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. And look at San Diego at the closure of The Union and other papers.

So, at a time when the legacy print media is literally disappearing before our eyes, and the legacy broadcast media is cutting back on investigative reporting and long-form reporting, now is a tremendous opportunity—and I would say obligation—for public service media to help fill that gap, especially at the local level.

Because in a lot of these cities, the local newspapers have died. Without those public broadcasting systems stepping in to fill that gap, I'm not sure who is going to do that. What about local commercial TV news operations? If you look at studies indicating the amount of time devoted to actual hard news on the local commercial station, it is going down. Same way for their international coverage, which has been slashed to the bone at the largest commercial stations. NPR, by contrast, has been building up its international coverage. In many ways, NPR has become the gold standard for national and international reporting.

And when I turn to my public broadcasting stations, they are covering local news and doing real, serious journalism. We are going to be looking at journalism over the coming year, including the possibility of setting up various ways that local reporters can pool and share their news in public broadcasting.

I think we have a pretty well-balanced portfolio now. But more attention is going to be devoted to hard news and financial issues.

So, the next time you ask Congress for money, will you ask for more for local news expansion?

Yeah. Localism has been the theme song of public broadcasting for many years. Every time folks go to the Hill they say that. But it is still true. We still say it. It is still necessary, but more so than ever because the local news sources are dying.

We are at a unique pivot point in public broadcasting. There is a huge demand for what we do. We are among the most trusted media outlets in the U.S. We are at this moment where the sky is the limit.

When my students come in, they say this is the most exciting time to be a journalist and a communicator in the history of the world because we have more technological assets and tools than we have ever had before.

So, I think this is a very hopeful time for American journalism broadly, and for public media specifically. What a great time to be doing this.

So long as there is government money to support it, because it is not a great time to be making a business out of it.

I think the challenge is not to prop up business models that are failing. My students don't care how they get their news. They get it across a variety of transports. We are in this sort of waterfall period. There was stability and calm pools above the falls, and there will be stability and calm pools below the falls, but right now we are in a hell of a transition.

You are right: NBC Universal, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, are all looking for business models. But that does not obviate the likelihood that this is going to eventually be figured out by smart folks. As that happens, we will continue to live in the most media-drenched opportunity for local voices, local people, local institutions, to tell their stories that mankind has ever seen.

So, the down economy, while it has put a hurting on noncoms, has also given them an opportunity to fill what you see as a news void?

The short answer is, yes. Now, I don't want to dance on their graves, but the reality is that we are, in fact, in every locality around the country—more so than Clear Channel, more so than USA Today. So, I am very upbeat about the future of public service media provided we—local stations, NPR, PBS, CPB—can come together and continue the kind of dialog that we have been having. I have been here since 2000. This past year, I have seen more openness and frankness to talk about tough issues than I have seen.

Ken Tomlinson, former chairman of the board, seemed to think that noncommercial media are liberally biased and needed some conservative counterbalance

Ken and I came on the board at the same time. I worked closely with him. And I fundamentally disagreed as a matter of empirical reality. Twice the CPB board commissioned studies—I think we had a Republican firm and Democratic firm do the studies—and said we want you to rank in order of objectivity and clarity and lack of bias the media in the U.S. The public broadcasting system was ranked the least biased of all.

Should we be past highlighting the fact that you are the first African American to hold this job, or does it inform what you do?

We are all the product of our upbringing. I grew up in Washington, D.C., when it was segregated. My parents couldn't take me to shop in downtown Washington. We couldn't very safely drive on Route 40 to visit my grandparents in Philadelphia. So that is going to shape who I am.

But the thing that has really shaped me a lot lately is moving to L.A., which is probably the most global and diverse city on the face of the earth. There are 19 population groups in L.A. that are larger than any other population grouping. For example, there are more Koreans in L.A. than any place else than Seoul.

Our ideas of diversity are being exploded and expanded in ways that I think are really invigorating and very, very exciting. We are becoming a gumbo nation. My own background as an African American informs my identity, but it is certainly not the only thing.

The board had a very long discussion about the values of diversity, the importance of diversity in terms of age and race and national background. And I sat there and didn't have to say a lot because it was a very rich conversation by the members around the table, who were deeply committed to this idea about making public service media reflect and give access to a variety of rich voices.

So, I'm not sure I would lead with it.