Deep in the this week’s Pew study on news consumption were some troubling data on the perception of public media. Whether or not NPR or PBS’ News Hour can be shown to have a left political bias, they are perceived as such. Now, that may not be news to some, but here are the numbers from the study:
Nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans say they regularly listen to NPR (22% vs. 13%). A decade ago, NPR’s audience was fairly evenly balanced politically…15% of Democrats, 14% of independents, and 11% of Republicans said they regularly listened to NPR.
This partisan division applies to PBS’ News Hour as well– although the numbers are so low that I offer them with a grain of salt; “Nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans (7% vs. 4%) are regular viewers of the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.” Not surprisingly, the partisan gap also applies to credibility:
Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to say they believe all or most of what these outlets [NPR and News Hour] report, placing them among the most credible sources for Democrats, and among the least credible for Republicans.
The study points out such gaps are not unique to public media, for “more Democrats than Republicans say they regularly watch a wide range of different news programs.”
The gap between Republicans and Democrats in regular viewership of the nightly network news on ABC, CBS, or NBC is now 14 points, nearly
three times as large as it was in 2004; currently, 38% of Democrats regularly watch compared with 24% of Republicans.
Public media should be concerned about these perceptions for pragmatic (Congressional funding) reasons as well as for its failure to reach an important segment (a majority?) of Americans. So what are the options? Should public broadcast media surrender to their fate, accept partisanship, and try to become a professional Pacifica? Follow the Ken Tomlinson route and add explicitly conservative programming a la Tucker Carlson? Perhaps Radio Open Source provides some guidance. Though host Chris Lydon does not hide his political proclivities (I’m fairly confident that he did not vote for Bush), the show seems to try to integrate opposing perspectives through their emphasis on blogs and participation. Open Source’s emphasis on working with conservative and libertarian bloggers has strengthened shows on abortion, Harriet Myers, the Republican coalition, and on well, bloggers. Furthermore, when that whole name dust-up happened with Roger Simon and Open Source Media/Pajamas Media, they handled it well. I don’t know what affects this has had on their listenership, or the political make-up there-of, but Open Source’s approach has led to the inclusion of a set of intelligent perspectives that I otherwise might not hear.
Advertising won’t support everything. Tax support raises questions, including not only government interference but also political will. So what will the public support directly? What will the mix of money and models be in the future?