Monday, May 11, 2009

Eye Candy or Education?

Appearing before a convention of electronic journalists in 1958, Edward R. Morrow said, "Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved for one week the kinescopes of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues," Murrow added, "we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER."

If recent events prove anything, we are now paying for what we have refused to watch for a long time. It is true that there are more networks than there were in Murrow's time. But they operate on the same principle: television's prime directive is to sell. This is particularly true with over the air broadcasting, which now largely distributes infomercials, a plethora of television justices, and Jerry Springer-like freak shows. The so called "quality" programing has migrated to cable or satellite, where viewers pay for what they watch.

Recently, Canadian broadcasters have complained that the old "free" model of television broadcasting is broken. They claim that some kind of pay as you go system is the only viable broadcasting model. This is a curious argument, given that the medium itself -- the airwaves they rely on to make their profits -- are owned by the public.

Digital television promises many more channels. But more channels -- like more networks -- do not guarantee better quality. And, if people want to pay for schlock, I have no desire to prohibit their choices. However, it is worth remembering that Murrow's appearance before his fellow journalists was the opening salvo in the battle to establish the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States.

American public broadcasting chose the BBC as a template for its operations. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was originally founded on the same British model. But, over the last forty years, it has increasingly looked to William Paley (who founded CBS) and David Sarnoff (who founded NBC) for inspiration. And, as Canadian governments of all stripes have cut funding for the corporation, the CBC has increasingly relied on cheap, commercial American programs to fill its time slots.

If government can find money to bail out banks and the automobile companies, it should be able to find money for public broadcasting. Public broadcasting is also an investment in the future, because it is an investment in education. As James Travers wrote last week in The Toronto Star, "Education isn't just a competitive fix; it's the only available magic elixer. Among so many other things, it lets us wisely weigh the safety of what we eat, the wisdom of corporate investments, and the profound implications of sending Canadians abroad to serve and die. Education not only helps makes sense of testing times and a chaotic world order, it puffs up every part of life."

Over two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned that democracies which lack a passionate commitment to public education will wither. In recent years, public schools have suffered the whips and slings of government neglect. If private broadcasters have their way, public broadcasting will suffer the same fate. Both institutions deserve better.

As Murrow said, "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is only wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."

That battle continues. It will not be won without a strong, unwavering commitment to public broadcasting.

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