Why Public Media Has a Sexual-Harassment Problem

Feb 02, 2018, 08:00 PM

In a recent letter to listeners, Minnesota Public Radio’s president, John McTaggart, depicted daming allegations of sexual harassment against Garrison Keillor, the recently ousted host of the popular show “A Prairie Home Companion.” “If the full 12-page letter or even a detailed summary of the alleged incidents were to be made public, we believe that would clarify why MPR ended its business relationship with Garrison,” he wrote. The statement is likely geared toward shocked fans, some of whom criticized the station for severing ties with Keillor over what he said was a “more complicated” version of events. McTaggart’s letter may quell some of MPR’s critics, but it doesn’t answer the bigger question many listeners have: How could Keillor and so many other beloved public-media stars have gotten away with such inappropriate behavior for so long?

Within the span of a few weeks, accusations against other high-ranking and well-known figures have surfaced in the public-broadcasting realm, leading to their dismissal or suspension from organizations including NPR, WNYC, and WBUR. There was David Sweeney and Michael Oreskes and Charlie Rose. And John Hockenberry, Tom Ashbrook, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz. There’s something odd about how many of the allegations of sexual misconduct the media industry have come out of public media—with its reputation for thoughtfulness and civility. Hollywood was one thing, with its legacy of casting couches, hypersexualization of women, and clear gender imbalances—but gentle, egalitarian public radio?

The industry’s swift and aggressive response has been notable. Stations have been quick to cut ties with those accused of sexual harassment. That stands in contrast to the choices made by other organizations who have sometimes chosen different and less severe forms of censure, such as the reassignment of Glenn Thrush at The New York Times or the six-month sabbatical taken by Pixar’s John Lasseter.

According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit formed in 1967 to act as a steward for the federal government’s investments in public broadcasting, the purpose of public media is to “provide programs and services that inform, educate, enlighten, and enrich the public and help inform civil discourse essential to American society.” And that mandate requires the “development of content that involves creative risk and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, especially children and minorities.” This guiding premise tasks public media with upholding a higher moral standard than for-profit media, and many presume that by virtue of working there, its employees adhere to those standards too. That’s part of what makes these allegations so difficult for audiences to stomach.

Public media is donor-based, meaning these outlets must appeal for their audiences’ support. In recent years, individual giving has increased for local public-radio funding and broadcasts such as PBS NewsHour. That may be part of what’s driving dismissals in public broadcasting. A donor-supported model “gives people a sense of ownership and investment that I think is different,” Pete Vernon, a staff writer covering media for the Columbia Journalism Review, told me. When it comes to stations trying to manage the fallout of sexual harassment, they “understand how bad the optics are on this, and they understand their listeners are now incensed about it.” They also understand that, especially for smaller stations, their livelihood can depend on their ability to court donations.

Public media is made up of a large constellation of local, independent radio and television stations, which receive federal funding to help them provide free programming and services to their local audience. These stations can differ vastly in size, audience, and resources. Some choose to become member stations to national outfits such as Public Broadcasting System (PBS) or NPR, which give them access to additional prog...