Giving Up on the Idea of New Jersey?

A Legislative Task Force has begun to take a look at the plan to de-fund and then privatize the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, aka NJN Public Television. This comes as no surprise, as the legacy of pecking away at the state funding of this public institution has been a budget-time tradition which started soon after the enthusiastic support of the Tom Kean years waned. 

When the State of New Jersey created the entity that became NJN, it did so because New Jersey’s geographic position between two of the largest television markets in the nation left it devoid of any coverage.  Political leaders bemoaned the fact that citizens were ill-informed, apathetic, and not united by any sense of New Jersey pride.

Tom Kean was, in fact, one of the first New Jersey Governors to recognize how television could help bring both unity and dignity to a state that had historically been divided by parochialism and tarred by negative media images concocted by outsiders; his “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together” campaign is still legendary in its novelty and effectiveness in bringing the Garden State some identity and pride. 

Television may be more diverse in its supply of useless info-tainment today, but New Jersey has yet to have a statewide commercial television broadcast station, or a major commercial television network on its soil that provides any informative New Jersey programming.  Commercial media’s poor service to the New Jersey audience hasn’t changed much, and so the mission of NJN is as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so with the contraction of reporters at television outlets from Philadelphia and New York.  So why did the reductions in state funding continued year after year, even before the current crisis?

Since the mid-1990’s, NJN’s government-appointed leadership chose to turn away from state funding in order to follow the “public-private partnership” model.  That philosophy does have value, but only if both the public and the private funding efforts remain robust.  NJN has allowed the public side of the partnership to lapse, much to the relief of a series of Governors and Legislatures who made it look like they were “getting tough” on spending. 

The cuts were always significantly harmful to NJN’s budget even though the savings to the overall State budget were minimal, but the political points were scored.  These cuts were products of a long-term shift in people’s thinking about public funding and how it relates to public entities whose charge it is to step in where the marketplace does not.

In There’s More to New Jersey Than the Sopranos (2009), historian Marc Mappen wrote that New Jersey has actually evolved into one of the nation’s wealthiest states.  “The latest federal statistics show that New Jersey has the highest per capita income of any state, and if we were peeled off from the United States and made a separate country, … we would be the wealthiest nation in the world.  The rest of the United States would come in second, followed in third place by Luxembourg.”

A survey published last year on The Huffington Post ranked the top 15 wealthiest counties in the U.S., and it placed Hunterdon County as having the fourth highest median income in the country, followed by Somerset County (#7) and Morris County (#8).  Despite this very respectable standing in the economic world, New Jersey’s citizens receive no attention from the media marketplace when it comes to in-depth news coverage or programming that features the best of New Jersey, unless you count Jersey Shore or the occasional thirty second perp walk on commercial news. 

The marketplace is where New Jersey as a state always loses. Again, Marc Mappen: “Why this enduring condescending attitude toward our little state?  … from the start New Jersey was different from other colonies . …  we did not have a major city such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston with their powerful religious, economic, and cultural elites that could boast of their importance in the solar system.  … And split between the New York and Philadelphia regions, our identity has been shaped by outsiders.  Ever since Babylon, urban elites have looked down their noses at the rural hinterland, and regarded the inhabitants of those hinterlands, at best, as their social inferiors or, at worst, hopeless rubes.”

By giving up on NJN and becoming one of the few states in the nation to not support a public television station, we would bring New Jersey back into the media void. The most densely-populated state in the nation, and one of the wealthiest, would have no statewide television to call its own.  New Jerseyans will depend on the kindly and better people of New York and Philadelphia to provide both public television and “local” news, and get whatever those outlets can spare; the inevitable New Jersey putdown or scandal will do.

As public institutions and public funding steadily have become politically incorrect, so has the well-meaning “public-private partnership” lost its appeal; now “privatization” is being floated as the new solution. 

Despite the fact that according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting 95% of public television stations receive funding from state government, the State of New Jersey is now considering de-funding and letting NJN go to a private group, who will now have to contend with the economic realities of the marketplace and the favor of private funders who may or may not be interested in “statewide” issues.   Just this year legislators in Virginia rejected an effort to defund public television and legislators in Idaho said no to the privatization of Idaho Public Television.

For years New Jersey legislators and past governors could have been investing more, not less, in this public-minded institution.  Since its establishment, NJN has focused on building some sense of a state awareness within New Jersey, providing news, public affairs, and cultural programming that informs and educates viewers. 

NJN has provided this service to citizens no matter where they live or what political party they belong to.  No commercial network with mega-bucks can claim to reach all of New Jersey, nor have they ever come close to providing the wealth of substantive New Jersey coverage that NJN has.  (See for yourself: check out the News and Program archives at njn.net.)  In the past two decades, NJN has also produced shows that have been seen nationally on PBS, providing Americans with a fairer, more reasonable depiction of New Jersey to the rest of the country. 

 NJN really isn’t in the television business; it is a public institution mandated to serve all of New Jersey citizens with public television, radio, and media for New Jersey, about New Jersey.  It is an experiment in bringing this very divided state together.  If the State of New Jersey can’t support that mission, who will?  Please take a moment to remind both the Legislature and the Governor to re-think ending this forty-year attempt at trying to change the second-rate status of New Jersey.  

Bob Szuter is a Writer/Producer at NJN PUBLIC TELEVISION. Bob has been the producer/director of several acclaimed programs about New Jersey that have gone “national” including Green Builders and Morristown: Where America Survived.   His views are not necessarily those of NJN.

Giving Up on the Idea of New Jersey?