PBS chief discusses distrust of media
GRANITE FALLS, Minn.—Paula Kerger has led the Public Broadcasting Service for the past 12 years as its president and CEO amid much turmoil in the media world.
Under Kerger's leadership, PBS has grown from the 12th-most-viewed network in the country to the sixth. PBS also continues to lead in the marks its audience gives it for trustworthiness. And yet, much of the attention focused on Kerger has been due to her role as one of the few women in charge of a national media operation. Forbes magazine recently profiled her rise in a male-dominated industry. The article noted that less than 20 percent of newsroom leadership positions are held by women.
Kerger met with area reporters during a visit Saturday, April 28, to Granite Falls and answered questions on public television, the media and women in the workplace.
Here are her edited responses to a few of the issues raised:
When asked if our democracy is threatened by attacks on the media, and to what she attributed the public distrust, Kerger said, "Democracy is really reliant on an informed citizenry; I really believe that." She said she believes that the "contraction" or consolidation of ownership in the media industry has had a "big impact on why people distrust media."
People want their news delivered by journalists who are part of the communities on which they report. "We all have seen stories where someone is clearly parachuted in from someplace else," she said, adding that it is obvious these reporters don't fully understand the depth of the stories they are reporting.
Kerger also blamed the 24-hour news cycle and the resulting blurring of the line between entertainment and news, as well as, too frequently, a blurring of the line between point of view and news.
There is nothing wrong with expressing a view. "But I think you need to understand what lane you are in," she said.
She also attributes much of the distrust and slinging of the "fake news'' charge to a greater social divisiveness. "I think we're just in a very divisive time, and I think it is too easy for people to throw out (the term 'fake news') if they are unhappy with something. It's easy to throw out lines like fake news."
She attributes her system's high ranking in terms of trustworthiness to a focus on delivering the news, just the facts. "People can decide what to think," Kerger said.
When asked if women are making progress as leaders in the male-dominated news industry, Kerger said she is well-aware of her role as one of the few women leaders in the industry. "I don't feel I just represent myself but that I represent half of the population," she noted.
Kerger noted the many well-publicized cases of sexual harassment in the workplace today and pointed to a growing number of women taking on significant roles in media outlets as a sign of change.
"When I first started working, the balance of women in the workplace was different," she said. "I think there is a whole generation that has grown up accustomed to their mothers and their aunts and others working, and it just continues to evolve."
Women slightly outnumber men in senior positions at PBS today, she said. She expressed hope that the attention to harassment in the workplace will produce a better environment in the future. "It makes everyone more conscious of how do you create work environments where everyone can bring their best game," she said.
On the topic of federal funding for PBS, Kerger said support is critical. The newly approved federal budget includes the full funding request made by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, despite an initial proposal by President Donald Trump to end all funding to it. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributes federal funds to support operations at the 350 member PBS stations. Overall, the federal funds represent 15 percent of operations funding for public television stations. At smaller, rural stations, such as Pioneer Public Television, federal support can represent anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of their budgets.
Kerger emphasized the importance of supporting local public television stations in an era when many commercial media operations are disappearing. "I visit communities where there's no local papers left, where there's no local radio or television other than the public station," she said.