If ever there were a state in need of a vicious press corps, with reporters camped out at the statehouse with the vigilance of teenage girls trying to score Justin Bieber tickets, New Jersey would be it.
Long plagued with political corruption, a fiscal crisis and a woeful environmental record, New Jersey is rife with stories that should be competing for headline space. Instead, New Jerseyites rarely encounter local news – unless they’re tuning into their local public broadcasting station, New Jersey News (NJN), that is. But now the state-owned TV station faces severe budget cuts that could cripple its ability to deliver local news coverage.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ® is proposing to cut all state funding for the broadcast station, which comprises 25 percent of the station’s $16 million operating budget. In the ‘90s, NJN received 66 percent of its operating budget from the state. Christie has also proposed relinquishing the broadcasting network to a third-party nonprofit organization.
The governor isn’t the only leader trying to take an ax to his state’s public media system. Across the country, as states face increasingly tough budget decisions, public broadcasting consistently ends up on the chopping block . In January, the Association of Public Television States reported a $23 million total loss among public media due to state budget cuts this fiscal year – with more expected to come. According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), about 95 percent of public television stations and 77 percent of radio stations receive support at the state level.
The deep cuts and possible license transfer to a non-profit entity have understandably riled many in New Jersey, including the Communications Workers of America, Local 1032 ; 129 NJN employees will lose their jobs by Jan. 1, 2011, if the cuts are enacted. On Wednesday, advocacy groups Environment New Jersey and the NJ Working Families Alliance delivered 710 letters of opposition from the public collected by Free Press (the organization that employs me) to a statehouse budget meeting.
Another faction at NJN, including the Executive Director Howard Blumenthal , welcomes the prospects of going independent. But Dudley Burdge, a CWA union representative for the NJN staff, expressed his concern about the proposed license transfer, writing:
NJN’s broadcast licenses, towers, studios and equipment are a major asset worth several hundreds of millions of dollars that the state should not give away. Secondly, retention of the broadcast licenses by the state is the only way to insure (sic) that coverage of New Jersey news, culture, history and public affairs continue.”
Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, worries that the budget cuts will severely hamper NJN’s ability to cover the issues that the mainstream media ignores. Of particular concern to her are environmental issues, which she says don’t have a chance of getting in the public’s eye if the media fails to cover them. “New Jersey News is the only one covering environmental issues with any depth,” Jaborska says. “The only way ‘environmental issues’ will get in the commercial media is if someone gets poisoned and dies. Then they’ll cover it.”
Unlike other states considering public broadcasting cuts, New Jersey faces a unique dilemma. Because of the state’s proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, the Garden State does not have a commercial broadcast station strictly devoted to covering issues in the state. Instead of reporting on local problems, residents get commercial news created by other people for other people – those not living in New Jersey. This could be tolerable, but residents aren’t getting much quality reporting from their newspaper either; the state’s leading newspaper, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, cut its newsroom staff by 40 percent in 2008.
In her letter to the Assembly Budget Committee, Jaborska wrote:
New Jersey needs more reporting of its own issues – whether it be high property taxes, loss of school programs and health services, job loss, or exposure to environmental pollution – we need news sources like NJN to tell us who is affected and how, and what the state’s leaders are, or are not doing to resolve them. We need more of the kind of reporting that NJN does of the pressing public interest issues of the day, not less.
Budget crisis or not, there’s simply no excuse for gutting communities’ public media systems, particularly at a time when they need it the most. Newsroom layoffs across the country have made statehouses look like ghost towns. According to an April 2009 article in the American Journalism Review, state-house reporting has decreased nationally by 30 percent since 2003. Public broadcasting stations should step in, filling gaps created by shrinking commercial stations to ensure local reporting continues to reach citizens.
We need more local coverage, not less – and we need our governments at both the federal and state levels to protect our democracy by protecting journalism – something our leaders have recognized since the founding of the republic. (Here’s one idea for doing so from Free Press: create a federal media trust fund that would make public media self-sufficient.)
Christie needs to back away from his disastrous proposal, or the state’s lawmakers need to discard it for him—as Virginia legislators did when they rejected their governor’s attempts to cut $2.2 million from the state’s public broadcasting station. In the long term, lawmakers need to figure out how to protect and promote public media before we lose it, state by state.
Referring to the importance of government transparency, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If NJN is cut down to a quarter of its current size, New Jersey’s citizens will be living in a darker state.