Will putting century-old Wisconsin Public Broadcasting under the direction of University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross’ office jeopardize the journalistic integrity of its programming?
State Rep. Mark Miller, D-Madison, thinks so.
“I am deeply concerned that housing WPR and WPT in the Office of the President will inherently create a chilling effect of the free exchanges of ideas that we have come to expect in public broadcasting in Wisconsin,” Miller wrote to Cross in a Nov. 1 letter.
Miller sent his letter days before the Board of Regents approved Cross’ plan to move Wisconsin Public Broadcasting from UW Extension to his office as part of a sweeping reorganization plan that also will merge UW 13 two-year colleges with four-year institutions. Deadline for implementing the plan is July 1.
Miller, chair of the Minority Caucus, referenced in his letter a visit by Cross to the Senate Democratic Caucus to outline his vision for the reorganization.
The president is hired by and reports to the Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the “highly political” office of the governor, Miller noted. The office of the UW president is then, by its nature, subject to political pressure, he said.
But UW must continue its fundamental commitment to “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” Miller said, invoking the university’s historic byword for academic freedom.
That tradition must continue “unabated, without fear of unwelcome reaction from political policy-makers at the top end of State Street,” Miller wrote.
“The last thing the people of Wisconsin s need is a state legislator or two influencing content and programming decisions for WPT and WPR,” he wrote.
With the “shield from politics” of the current structure, “it not difficult to come up with a list of controversial issues that Wisconsin Public Broadcasting leaders may feel reluctant to raise during the many Wisconsin-produced programs,” Miller said.
He recommended that public broadcasting be moved to UW-Madison, like most UW-Extension functions are scheduled to be.
Malcolm Brett, director of Broadcast and Media Innovations for UW Extension, said that journalistic integrity of WPR and WPT will be maintained when their operations are administered by Cross’ office.
“We have built a practice and reputation for editorial independence for 100 years — all within UW System and through a range of policy boards and administrations,” Brett wrote in a message.
The university has delegated programming decisions to management and professional staff within WPR and WPT and have affirmed that delegation of responsibility over time, Brett said. “We know that commitment persists today and is durable and will sustain in any new structure.”
UW regents honored Wisconsin Public Broadcasting at their Nov. meeting — where they approved the reorganization plan — and Brett made a presentation marking the 100th anniversary of WPR, one of the oldest radio stations in the country. WPT was founded a half-century later.
Brett told regents that his office “meets regularly with editorial staff to make sure we are adhering to our obligations and policies of fairness, and to the degree we can find it, balance, in presenting issues.”
Donors to public broadcasting, who now provide nearly 60 percent of operating funds, represent the full spectrum of public opinion, he said.
Not only are the Board of Regents and UW System Administration committed to fairness, Brett said, but public broadcasting’s decades-long broadcast partnership with the Educational Communications Board offers additional assurance of independence.
The board, a state agency that holds many public radio and television licenses within WPR and WPT, requires that programming decisions be consistent across both organizations and those decisions be delegated to professional staff, Brett said.
Hemant Shah, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said he trusts the news operations at WPR and WPT. “I have great confidence that they will fight to maintain their independence,” he said.
But, Shah added, “any time politics becomes an explicit part of journalistic judgment and decision making, I’d be concerned about the impartiality of the news.”
“I would hope that the Regents develop policies that maintain the editorial independence of news operations of WPR and WPT,” Shah said.
Miller, in his letter, refers to Cross’ assurances in his meeting with Senate Democrats that he will erect a “firewall” between his office and public broadcasting.
Cross has said he is open to other recommendations for public broadcasting from a steering committee charged with developing a plan to implement the reorganization, said UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis.
“But regardless of where they end up, they will continue to have their autonomy,” she said.