Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Mind Control

PBS’s PAT MITCHELL talks about the dangers of corporate control of the media


The great technological tsunami washing over our media landscape has given consumers more choices than ever. A nation that once got its headlines at suppertime from Walter Cronkite and its laughs on Saturday night from Carol Burnett now has a seemingly infinite number of choices for news and entertainment.

The media have consolidated at cyberspeed since the 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted the prohibitions on their growth.

So, while the number of choices has increased, the number of corporations that control them has declined. Take News Corporation: It owns the Fox broadcasting network, several cable channels and newspapers, the Twentieth Century Fox film studio and the HarperCollins publishing house.

As Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota once asked a proponent of media deregulation during a Congressional hearing, “When you talk about the diversity of voices out there ... are you talking about more voices by one ventriloquist?”


Consolidation of commercial media has robbed it of its ability to serve all people. I’m proud PBS keeps the “broad” in broadcasting. You will find a diversity of voices in our public affairs programming. PBS is home to some of television’s brightest journalists and commentators, whether it’s the documentary filmmakers at “Frontline” or Paul Gigot and the other panelists on “The Journal Editorial Report.”

Promoting diversity also means tapping into our nation’s vast cultural heritage. Our “Tavis Smiley Show,” for example, is the only nightly talk show on television hosted by an African American. Mr. Smiley came to public broadcasting after a long career at cable’s Black Entertainment Television, which has essentially abandoned the news business.

Three years ago, PBS introduced “American Family” – the first weekly series with an all- Hispanic cast – to its lineup. We picked the show up after it was dropped by CBS, which developed “American Family” but declined to schedule it. Our PBS Kids lineup includes such gems as “Maya & Miguel,” a daily chronicle of the adventures of two precocious Hispanic twins, and “Sagwa,” the story of a curious Siamese cat that gives viewers a glimpse into China’s rich heritage.

When I became a broadcast journalist in the 1970s, commercial TV stations produced their own talk shows, documentaries and newsmagazines, all designed to reflect the tastes and needs of the viewers they served. How times have changed. In many cities, the last locally-owned media outlets are the public broadcasting stations! This is never more evident than during times of crisis. In too many communities, the commercial media has lost its ability to perform the critical task of informing citizens during emergencies.

Take Minot, North Dakota, a small city that faced a major threat three years ago when a train carrying 10,000 gallons of ammonia fertilizer derailed at 1 a.m. and sent a toxic cloud into the early morning sky. In the hours after the derailment, the local police were unable to reach anyone by phone at KCJB, a country music station and Minot’s designated emergency broadcaster. KCJB – one of about 1,200 stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc.– was running on auto pilot that night, piping a satellite feed in from another city. The authorities tried to contact the other radio stations in Minot to ask them to broadcast warnings about the spill, but no one could be reached at those stations, either. As it turned out, Clear Channel owned six commercial stations in town.

Not surprisingly, one of the first stations to get the information on the air was KMPR, Minot’s public radio station. More recently, the heroic staff at Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) came to the rescue of citizens – and fellow journalists – in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina blew across the Gulf Coast. LPB, based in Baton Rouge, opened its doors to the staffers at the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, which was destroyed in the storm. LPB was also the only broadcaster that had the ability to reach viewers across the state.

How is public broadcasting able to foster diversity across its lineup? Why do we maintain such a strong commitment to localism?

It comes down to ownership. Public broadcasting is not a business, although we have owners to answer to: the American people, who are more concerned with quality than profits and ratings. The public demands nothing less than a public broadcaster that serves all people.

History teaches us that you cannot have a democracy without having a healthy, democratic media system. This nation takes the power of the press seriously, even dubbing it the “fourth estate” of our government. I am proud of the crucial role public broadcasting performs in our society, but we cannot be the only remedy to the ills of corporate consolidation. Government regulators must do their part to ensure media conglomerates do not grow so large that they are unable– or unwilling– to be held accountable to the public they serve. Soon, those regulators will take another stab at rewriting the rules that govern growth in the media. No matter what happens, the committed journalists of public broadcasting will be watching closely. I hope you do, too.


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