Public Lands and Public Media

Tonight is the premier of the new Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I have had the good fortune to see a few sneak previews of the six part series, and am eager to see the rest.

The first preview of the series I saw was a rough cut of the introductory monologue, which featured stunning videography from just a few of the 391 national parks and laid out the guiding idea behind the film. I was struck at how the Duncan tied the history of the national parks to our political, social, and individual identities as Americans.

This excerpt from the introduction on their website gets at some of these ideas, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone.” For Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns this idea is fundamental to our democratic spirit, and understanding the role of the parks in the history of America is key to understanding ourselves.

It’s fitting then, that this documentary capturing the uniquely American idea of public lands for all people, is premiering on America’s public television network, PBS. Just as our national parks are an articulation of democratic ideals, public broadcasting has since its founding sought to serve the democratic needs of our nation. Free Press (where I work) has argued that “The ideals of public broadcasting are deeply rooted in the principles of American democracy.”

In our report “Public Media’s Moment” Free Press describes the founding vision of public media as a “noncommercial, nonprofit and independent enterprise for providing the news, educational and children’s programming that enriches and informs a democratic citizenry, and it would provide the ‘public interest’ programming that [is] notably absent from commercial broadcasting.”

This documentary comes at a moment of profound change in both our environment and our media. While both are core to our democratic identity, both have suffered from neglect, inadequate funding, and bad policy decisions. Our national parks are facing enormous challenges related to climate change, pollution, and sprawl at the same time that budget cuts have left fewer staff managing more and more land and bad policies have hamstrung conservation efforts. The challenges facing our media are no less daunting. Decades of media consolidation (a result of bad policies) have gutted newsrooms, and as more vital news and information is shifting online still more than 30% of America is on the wrong side of the digital divide.

So what can this documentary, that sits at the intersection of media and conservation, tell us about how to respond to the challenges facing both?

In an interview about the film, Duncan wrote that:

The greatest lesson I learned in making this film is this reaffirming lesson of democracy… I believe in democracy and what I wasn’t prepared for were the great lessons of politics and democracy and citizen activism that are at the heart of the park story – the determination that these places are not only there for us, but for all people to enjoy. And also that all people can have a role in making sure that there are places for all of us to enjoy. It doesn’t happen by itself and it sometimes happens with the help of powerful interests, but most often it was everyday people who changed the course of American history by deciding that a special portion of this great landscape was now going to be sacred and going to be preserved forever.

Dayton Duncan and I both sit on the board of directors for the Student Conservation Association, the oldest youth conversation organization in the nation. Each year the SCA engages more than 4,000 young people in service to the land and local communities. Much of this work is done in state and national parks.

Just as citizens were at the heart of protecting many of the national parks initially, through organizations like SCA citizens continue to be at the heart this work. In a recent report, SCA president Dale Penny wrote that “record numbers of young people are recognizing the mounting needs across public lands and, from all over the country, are signing on with the SCA to aid our parks, forests, refuges and seashores. The National Park Service and other federal resource managers are partnering with the SCA to embrace this surge in ‘citizen stewards’ and provide them with more opportunities to protect our natural and cultural assets.”

Later, Penny refers to the National Parks documentary and warns, “If all we do is watch, we will not be doing enough.” He calls on people to see the new documentary not just as a history of our national parks, but also as a call to action for the future of all our public lands.

We would be well served to do the same for our public airwaves. The environmental movement has been particularly good at moving people to action. It has built legions of citizen activists across the country and committed advocates on capitol hill. People have come to understand the environment as both a local issue, demanding local action, and a political issue demanding policy solutions. We are just beginning to see such an understanding of the media – especially public and community media.

In Free Press’s report “Public Media’s Moment” we argue that now is the time for policy makers and the nation to reimagine our public media system. This reimagining involves much more than just another fight for more appropriations in Congress. The upheaval in media brought about by the internet and digital technologies, media consolidation and a global economic crisis offers us a unique moment to lay the groundwork for a new kind of public media, one that competes side by side with commercial media, and that meets the diverse information needs of the American people.

However, if we are to set up a public media system that is as grand and long lasting as our national parks, we can’t leave it up to lawmakers and pundits. If we value the kind of documentaries, journalism, educational programing, arts, music, and government and community access that exists almost exclusively on public media we can’t just write checks to our local PBS and NPR stations. If we think that for all the good work NPR and PBS do, they could be doing so much more; then we have to act now. It’s up to us.

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