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Power to the public podcast

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, American public news media received a ton of criticism for failing to call out the government. And rightfully so, considering public journalists abroad were grilling their own elected officials on why they felt the need to pursue conflict in Iraq.

So what happened with PBS and NPR? Simple -- they didn’t want to bite the hand that was feeding them. They were fearful of losing government and corporate funding by appearing radical and “anti-American.” It was a shameful approach that helped them fuel the big ugly media mess that got the lead-up to the Iraq invasion so horribly wrong.

This is not the public broadcasting that I came to love. When the Iraq invasion was in the news, I was eight years old. After learning about what happened and comparing it to the state of public journalism today, I believe strongly that much has changed. It’s been a gradual process, however, NPR and PBS have slowly taken steps over the years to hold themselves more accountable, ensuring that fatal mishaps like the Iraq invasion coverage do not happen again.

This does not mean that NPR and PBS are perfect. Over the years, they have pulled content that criticized its major donors and censored speeches that called out prominent politicians. Additionally in 2006, FAIR noted a severe lack of diversity among the staff at PBS NewsHour, which greatly affected the content they were producing. And to top it all off, they were finding most of their sources from elite official spaces.

These outlets have taken steps to address these problems. They have increased diversity in their newsrooms, specifically with regards to gender. They have also taken off in the podcasting world, giving them a space to engage with more unofficial sources.

But public broadcasting has a secret weapon that has been instrumental in correcting all of its major criticisms: the podcast.

Two Dope Queens. This American Life. On the Media. Fresh Air. Serial. Death, Sex, Money.

These titles have a few similarities: they are all podcasts, all affiliated with public broadcasting, and all expanding conversations on important social issues. Additionally, these particular podcasts are all produced by NPR affiliates in local markets for national distribution. This means they are coming directly from a specific community with which they engage.

Two Dope Queens features two young black women in New York City telling their stories and bringing in some really great comedians to chime in. This American Life sources its stories from listeners all over the country in a way that is artistic and compelling. On the Media offers bi-weekly intelligent critiques that call out the news media for its coverage of certain major events.

These are just a few of the podcasts that are really breaking ground in the American public. Unlike traditional NPR or PBS broadcasts, they are digital, and do not adhere to the rules of the FCC or corporate funders. While the podcasts do feature a significant amount of underwriting, they do not have to adhere to the same pressures that the national programming sticks to. And the fact that they are produced locally gives them a special connection to a certain audience, removing some of the distance between the listener and the hosts.

And the sad thing about all of this is that as more Americans flock to these publicly funded podcasts from local affiliates, our government is threatening budget cuts that would hurt local public media outlets the most. With public broadcasting as a form of media intended to truly serve as an arm of the First Amendment, some Republican lawmakers are claiming:

"A free society should not have government-supported media outlets, especially ones that so often convey political news and opinion.”

I can’t help but wonder how many of those lawmakers couldn’t stop listening to Serial when it came out. Or perhaps how many of them secretly wish Ira Glass would come chronicle their lives. What I can imagine, however, is the level of outrage among those same individuals when “On the Media” calls out certain news outlets for cozying up to the establishment.

Public media today knows it’s on the chopping block. It’s how they choose to use this information that will expose the true colors of public broadcasting, and if it has really taken steps toward responsible reporting and inclusivity.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a new episode of On the Media to catch up on.

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