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A Harrisburg station called out GOP’s ‘Big Lie.’ Then Pa. nixed $$$ for public media. Coincidence?

Near the end of January 2021 — a month like no other in American history, which saw an attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill, the second impeachment of then-President Donald Trump, and finally the inauguration of President Biden — the newsroom leaders of Harrisburg’s public radio station, WITF, unveiled an unprecedented move.

In a piece on the WITF website, top editors Tim Lambert and Scott Blanchard announced that any Pennsylvania state or federal lawmaker who’d formally challenged the validity of Biden’s 80,000 vote 2020 victory in the commonwealth — in a lawsuit, a formal letter or the certification vote on Capitol Hill — would now see their actions mentioned every single time they appeared in any story from their station. They argued the threat to democracy that a valid election could be overturned was too great to allow the audience to forget what happened.

“We understand this may be an unusual decision for a news organization to make,” they wrote. “But, these are not normal times. As disinformation and misinformation take more and more of a foothold in our social media feeds and dinner-table discussions, it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to bring you the facts and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy in the last three months.”

It was a remarkably bold move, and many people took notice. In the world of media criticism, WITF was praised — for recognizing the threat that what’s become known broadly as the “Big Lie” around the 2020 election poses to democracy — by the likes of the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, who said “I’d like to see more accountability.” Inside the GOP-dominated Legislature in Harrisburg, reviews were less favorable. The spokesman for state House Republicans, Steve Miskin, called the policy, in a tweet, “another example of arch left wing progressives pushing their slanted agenda through so-called news.”

Late last month, House Republicans and their Senate colleagues had another message for WITF and its colleagues in Pennsylvania public radio and television — delivered with the sound of silence. For the first time in six years, lawmakers sent Gov. Wolf a budget with no money to aid the state’s seven public TV and radio organizations, a list that also includes WHYY here in Philadelphia. Last year, the state had awarded the stations, including WITF, $750,000 to help air children’s programming and deal with other technological costs.

Three things need to be made clear upfront. First, I wouldn’t writing this piece were it not for outstanding journalism by Stephen Caruso of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, who broke this story late last week. Second, the monies in question are just something of a state booster shot, a tiny sliver of their overall operations — so the move won’t affect their day-to-day operations. Third, there’s no smoking gun to establish any link between the disappearance of state funding and WITF’s posture on the “Big Lie.”

» READ MORE: The cruelty is the point of GOP-driven Pa. budget that won’t help Pennsylvanians | Will Bunch

You see, this is part of the problem with Harrisburg — that the annual budget process, which is arguably the most important thing lawmakers do every year, is designed to be opaque and limit public scrutiny. We just saw this problem writ large in a state budget crafted to not spend at much as $7 billion available from a surprise surplus and COVID-19 relief, which was passed in less than a day with little real debate.

In the case of Pennsylvania’s seven public broadcasters, which have received a total of $2.75 million in state aid over the last 5 years, initiatives such as this are often left out from Gov. Wolf’s original budget and added by the Legislature with Wolf’s OK; this year, again, Wolf did not propose the spending at first but then lawmakers never added it, even though similar items — like state dollars for zoos and a Pittsburgh supercomputer — were put back in, in a year when (let’s remind ourselves again) Pennsylvania had an extra $7 billion to work with. Rather than offer an explanation, the key players who spoke with Caruso just pointed fingers at each other.

“Unfortunately in Pennsylvania, state funding for public television stations is never a constant,” Sarah Trexler Sheehan, WITF’s director of marketing, told me via email, citing past cuts under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. “We can’t speak to the legislature’s motives, but we will continue to share the good work of public media in Pennsylvania with our legislators.”

Whatever really happened behind locked doors, the appearance is not good, and it speaks to a growing and important conversation within America’s news media. In a business which had already experienced a generation of job losses and the death of hundreds of small town newspaperswhacked again in 2020-21 by the pandemic and evil hedge funds — many advocates have said lately that public money — since you can’t have a functioning democracy without an informed public — might be the only answer.

But the latest flap out of Harrisburg shows the enormous peril of government dollars for journalism, even as a partial solution. In an era when a growing number of elected officials are waging war on the truth, from election results to coronavirus vaccines, would journalists be forced to choose between an important story or their survival?

“Direct subsidies of the sort that exist in Pennsylvania are an invitation for government to interfere in news coverage, and to use funding as a threat in order to bludgeon journalists into staying away from certain stories,” Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University and a top media critic, told me Monday. At the same time, he noted that indirect government aid — funneled through larger entities like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or tax policy that promotes donations — can and should help news orgs.

I agree, but here’s the bottom line: It’s a difficult slog, and maybe a futile one, but we need to convince the millions of individual citizens who still believe in the news as a public good to support us with subscriptions, donations, or any way they can. The biggest reason we depend on quality journalism is because we can’t depend on our elected officials to do what’s right.

Yo, do this

  • I lived though 1977 and while it was sure an eventful year for me — turning the then-drinking age of 18 and trading high school for college — it seemed like a dull 12 months for news. Vietnam and Watergate were over, and Jimmy Carter was here to turn down the thermostat (I mean ... literally). But Slate’s new podcast — called One Year, and picking 1977 for its first season — has convinced me I was wrong. Helmed by Josh Levin who also did a great job with Slow Burn’s season on David Duke, One Year’s compelling first episode on Anita Bryant and gay rights has a surprise twist at the end, and I’m looking forward to what else I missed while I was drinking cheap beer and listening to Neil Young in a freshman dorm room.

  • The racial reckoning that took over America’s streets in the late spring of 2020 has moved onto the printed page in 2021, but it still packs a wallop. The latest exhibit is the lengthy essay by New York Times editorial page stalwart Brent Staples this past weekend entitled, “How the White Press Wrote Off Black America.” Recounting three centuries of shameful episodes recovered from down the memory hole, Staples chronicles how America’s newspapers aided the slave trade, condoned — either explicitly or tacitly — lynching, and promoted destructive stereotypes about Black people, too many of which still linger on some pages in 2021. He notes that a number of news orgs have issued apologies lately — but there’s a lot more to be done.

Ask me anything

Question: When you find yourself feeling frustrated or depressed by the state of our politics, what do you do to recharge your batteries? Listen to rock and roll? Watch old movies? Go for a run? Or what? — Via Donna Halper (@DevorahLeah) on Twitter

Answer: The one positive thing for me about the lockdowns and working from home has been taking all that time I formerly spent commuting on SEPTA to Center City and reinvesting it in longer and longer walks with my two dogs, Daisy and Bella. We mix it up every day with a couple of nearby trails or a local dog park, and that’s when I get lost in my array of podcasts or Audible books that I recommend here. It’s been great exercise (yes, I’m one of those freaks who lost weight in the pandemic) and the Great Outdoors has also kept me sane.

Backstory

Since their epic run of five straight NL East titles ended in 2011, my baseball “second marriage” to the Phillies hasn’t always been easy. The last two years — saddled with a bullpen arguably the worst in the modern history of the sport, on a team that seems uninterested in the fundamentals of defense or base-running — have been especially hard. But nothing has infuriated me as much about our Fightins’ as this weekend’s newest revelation: The Phillies are a bunch of COVIDiots.

» READ MORE: Will Bunch: My love affair with the Phillies, or how I dumped the Mets | Perspective

It turns out that the Phillies are just one of just seven of 30 MLB teams that haven’t hit an 85% vaccination rate, which would allow them to loosen some pandemic restrictions. This was driven home on Sunday when third-baseman Alec Bohm contracted COVID-19 and that day’s scheduled starting pitcher, Aaron Nola — a son of Louisiana who thinks the vaccine is too experimental or something — was scratched, as one of Bohm’s contacts. Miraculously, they still beat the Boston Red Sox, but COVIDiocy could hamper the Phils in the second half of the season. Although surrounded by medical experts, a number of players who were vaccinated now falsely blame their shot for every minor muscle strain. “There’s gotta be some science behind it,” reliever Brandon Kintzler said of the clubhouse conspiracy theories. No, Brandon, there isn’t! Unwarranted, the Phillies remain role models to a lot of people in this region — especially impressionable young folks — and they could do much good by preaching the need to get vaccinated. Instead, the team that leads the league in blown saves is now blowing an opportunity to save a few lives. It’s shameful.

Inquirer reading list

  • I think the millions of Americans who refuse to get a coronavirus vaccine, as case counts begin to steadily rise again in many parts of the country, is the biggest story going right now. In my Sunday column, I dug deeper and spoke with a leading expert about what drives this hard-to-fathom “live-free-and-die” philosophy, including a libertarian worldview, concerns about bodily purity, and “negative partisanship” — those who think if Democrats promote vaccines they must be bad.

  • With President Biden coming to Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon, I looked at how he’s doing at the six-month mark of his administration, and tried to address head-on what seems to be the No. 1 opposition talking point, that his occasional gaffes mean the 78-year-old is in a “cognitive decline” that somehow diminishes his leadership. I argued that his heart — along with a strategic vision and hiring smart people to implement it — matters more than the state of Biden’s brain cells.

  • The next 16 months are going to be so pivotal for Pennsylvania politics, with wide-open elections for the two most coveted jobs — governor and U.S. senator. Just this morning, The Inquirer killed it with an in-depth look at the intriguing campaign of one Democratic Senate hopeful, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and a scoop on the Trump-fried travails of former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, a gubernatorial candidate, amid broader pressure for Republicans to embrace the “Big Lie.” You can’t get The Inquirer’s full coverage unless you subscribe — and here’s another new wrinkle. While you still can — and should — sign up for free to the weekly email of The Will Bunch Newsletter, as of today the internet version is only available to Inquirer subscribers. So be sure to tell all your friends what they’re missing if they don’t sign up.