Sometimes, the best perspectives about home are found away.
I spent the last week in Bucharest, on the invitation of the journalists and managers at Radio Romania. They asked me to speak about the role of an ombudsman in an independent public radio system.
The visit was certainly enlightening for me, and it got me thinking about some aspects of public radio in America that we sometimes take for granted.
There are many significant differences between NPR and Radio Romania: the most important being Radio Romania's relationship with the Romanian Parliament.
Funding for Radio Romania comes from a compulsory license fee paid by everyone who owns a radio or television. But the authorization for broadcasting comes directly from parliament.
NPR, on the other hand is a private, not-for-profit corporation. It receives some money indirectly, from the U.S. Congress through federally funded agencies such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In total, that amounts to about 1 percent of its annual budget.
Some Tough Choices
In Romania, some parliamentarians are often deeply involved with daily programming, giving their opinions on who should be interviewed and for how long. While some politicians told me they are committed to the principles of an "arm's-length" relationship with public radio, others seem less sure and believe that Radio Romania must act as a counterbalance to a lively but often scandal-obsessed private media.
A few politicians would prefer Radio Romania to be an "official" voice of government, with perhaps a bit of folk music thrown in, most people inside Radio Romania want a more western model — an independent and skeptical radio service.
The question is how to balance those competing and conflicting interests and values.
Management on a Tightrope
News management everywhere is a balancing act.
But in Bucharest, management has to walk a very narrow line between the heavy presence of the politicians and the prickly instincts of the journalists, who are quick to bristle with accusations of censorship at the least sign of pressure — either internal or external. Sometimes, the journalists may sense that any attempt at management is a harbinger of censorship.
The Communist Legacy
The 800-pound gorilla in every meeting I attended was, of course, the late and entirely unlamented communist leader, Nicolae Ceaucescu.
Ceaucescu ran a uniquely brutal regime even by the appalling standards of 20th century European communism. It ended on Christmas Day, 1989, when he and his wife Elena were executed and a democratic government took over. But Ceaucescu's ghost haunts Romania still.
Romanians constantly ask themselves how they can create long-lasting democratic institutions including a free press. This issue is key for Radio Romania.
An Ombudsman for Radio Romania?
So under these complicated conditions, would an ombudsman at Radio Romania make a difference?
That was the question I was repeatedly asked — but found extremely difficult to answer. I believe an ombudsman could be a force for an open and accountable media, but years of repression have left behind a legacy of suspicion, defensiveness and distrust that will take some time to overcome.
I do, however, hope that Radio Romania appoints an ombudsman. He or she will have to have nerves of steel and come prepared for some difficult issues and some very tough political interests, since journalism tends to take its cues from the political environment. In Romania, journalism, like politics, is not a spectator sport.
Different Radios — Same Questions
Public Radio journalists in Romania and the United States do face similar issues:
· How are media truly accountable to the public they purport to serve?
· How can a public broadcaster remain independent of the special political and financial interests?
· How can management embolden its journalists to commit fearless and responsible journalism without unleashing a backlash from its political masters?
· What are the confidence-building measures that all sides need to create a radio service that is journalistically reliable and credible in the eyes (and ears) of the listeners?
I came away deeply impressed with the passion of the Radio Romania staff, which is committed to creating a truly public service radio.
We should wish them well, because their success or failure will have its impact on all of us.