This week, the BBC announced the opening of a new United States website. The BBC is a public funded media outlet in the United Kingdom that garners traffic from upwards of 17 million United States citizens. Despite many American’s reliance on the UK’s public media, any suggestion of increased public media funding at home raises eyebrows among many Americans who are afraid of any government involvement in journalism.
The fear is unfounded, and the United States should increase funding to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in order to build a new American Journalism. (You’re thinking: Propaganda! Government takeover of journalism! A new Pravda!) Now that we have that out of our system, let us settle down and take a look at what government funded journalism really means.
First, let’s start on common ground. Most everyone can agree that democracy depends on an active and antagonistic press that polices the government. In the past, the press has revealed government malfeasance at the Watergate Hotel, the Oval Office, and at all levels of governmental action from local to national. The history of American journalism is a rich one, spanning hundreds of years. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” that in the 1830s “[n]ewspapers do not multiply simply because they are cheap, but according to the more or less frequent need felt by a great number of people to communicate with one another and act together.”
Journalism is indeed “cheap.” It is so cheap that journalism is facing a crisis of a lifetime. (You’re thinking: Not another diatribe about the death of journalism). Without capital there is no investigative reporting, and without investigative reporting, corruption runs wild. Now assuming that we agree that because of the “cheapness” of news and the rise of the Internet we have lost of $1.6 billion dollars of investigative and enterprise reporting annually and that this is detrimental to democracy, we need to look at how to fix it. When we do, we see that commercial journalism probably will not be able to recreate itself as it once was.
The problem for commercial news outlets is that news in the 21st century is ubiquitous. It is repurposed and repackaged, linked and tweeted, and given away for free. This reduces the commercial value of journalism, while the inherent societal value remains. Simply, just because journalism’s economic value is relatively little, its social value is immense. As such, we must look to other ways to sustain journalism and in effect sustain democracy. This, however, is not to say we should give up on commercial journalism, but rather that we should look towards new ways to compliment commercial journalism.
The United States spends about $420 million annually or about $1.43 per citizen on funding public media. In comparison, the UK spends almost $100 per citizen. In spite of United States’ tiny amount of funding for public media, public media still manages to create hard-hitting enterprise journalism. PBS was recently tapped for 37 Emmy nominations for, among others, investigative reporting–more than any other news outlet. This isn’t a reason to say “Well, it looks like they’re doing alright with their current funding,” but rather “Wow, think what they could do with a little more funding.”
While I don’t want to spend time lamenting commercial media’s focus on the outrageous and eye-catching infotainment and celebrity gossip (I’ll leave that to the short video below), I think it is worth asking, “What is quality media worth to the United States?” We can listen to Glenn Beck and Keith Olberman squabble, or we can fund a public media that is separate from, but supported by the government, and produces quality journalism (You’re thinking: Ahh! Government takeover).
The government has always played a roll in the development of journalism. Whether it was the newspaper subsidies through the post office, the political press, or the funding of media through public notices, the government has always had its money and its hand in journalism. Yet, we are still here. Not only are we still here, but the majority of the public trusts government supported public media more than commercial media.
Some have suggested that the Internet will save us from a loss of journalism elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Internet will not solve our journalism drought. Journalism is a difficult business. It requires trained people who know how to dig below the surface, sift through databases, and pursue the truth. While the Internet provides an ocean of information that information is disparate and without context. Journalists are the weavers of truth, and without them we will have only single threads of information.
So what now? Well, in the Wall Street Journalism, Professor Lee Bollinger recently wrote, “[Our] system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters. The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need.” It is possible. Not only is it possible, it is necessary.