RALEIGH – The case for privatizing public broadcasting in North Carolina just got a bit stronger, thanks to recent reporting by Rick Henderson of Carolina Journal.
Henderson has been closely following the ongoing debate about the fate of the hydroelectric plants that Alcoa owns and operates along North Carolina’s Yadkin River. I happen to think that the case for government acquisition of these dams is a weak one. But set that issue aside for the moment and consider what happened when former UNC-TV reporter Eszter Vajda began looking into Alcoa’s environmental record.
The subject was entirely deserving of journalistic investigation. As previously discussed, however, at some point the project mutated from journalism into crusade. Vajda received significant “help” from a number of interested parties to the dispute, including former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, and several local officials.
One of those, it turned out, was Bruce Thompson, a lobbyist for Stanly County. Thompson also happened to be on the board of UNC-TV, though he tells CJ that he responded to Vajda’s questions no differently than he did to questions from any other reporter.
Take Thompson at his word. There is still a major problem with credibility here.
He tried to compare the situation to the Raleigh News & Observer interviewing its outside legal counsel, Hugh Stevens, on a story in which he had an interest, or CJ interviewing a John Locke Foundation board member about an issue in which he may be personally involved.
The comparison doesn’t quite work. The N&O is a private company. CJ is a project of a private foundation. In neither case are board members or vendors selected by political appointment.
The issue here isn’t the existence of potential conflicts of interest – they do indeed exist in any journalistic enterprise. The N&O sometimes prints news stories about major advertisers, for example. In the past, CJ has reported on public officials who have also been board members or major donors to JLF in the past. Reporters need to be shielded from undue influence in such cases, by protecting the editorial independence of the media outlet. And disclosure is often appropriate.
The difference is that UNC-TV is itself a government agency. That’s the difference, and the problem.
Moving public television (and radio) from university ownership to a nonprofit need not require an end to at least indirect taxpayer subsidy, although I’d prefer a purely voluntary system for paying the bills. Plenty of public broadcasters in other states already operate as private nonprofits that benefit from government funds. So do some public broadcasters in North Carolina, such as the NPR affiliate based at Wake Forest University.
There are good, responsible journalists working at UNC-TV and other public broadcasting outlets. They deserve the opportunity to work in an environment where they can print, broadcast, or post content based on their editorial judgment, not political pressure.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.