How to Save the News
I would love it if supporting the news were seen as a routine civic obligation--"this month's city hall coverage adopted by the Elks Club" is easy to imagine--but those days, if they ever come, are likely far in the future, and adopting a stretch of highway is a far cry from building it in the first place.
To survive the current crisis, we need bigger, faster solutions. We need to do what other mature democracies have long done: fully fund our public media with tax dollars. Calling in the resources of the central government to bear on any national problem is sure to be obscured by the fog of ideological and partisan distractions permeating the debates about the climate crisis and healthcare. I can already hear the hysterical, clamoring opposition to "socialized media" or "government takeover of the news."
Better funding for All Things Considered on NPR or NewsHour on PBS will not turn either program into a propaganda outfit for the government. The BBC is not Pravda, and Japan and most of Europe, which have enjoyed extremely well-funded public media for decades, are not a network of totalitarian states. German public television, for example, is amply funded with revenue collected under the aegis of the central government but administered through a decentralized system designed to preserve regional independence. There are numerous democratic nations with public broadcasting systems that are both well funded by their central government and also well shielded from its political influence.
In America, more robust public media won't weaken or constrain our commercial media. No matter how well funded PBS and NPR become, American cable news will still be free to devote 22 percent of its total coverage to stories like the death and burial of Anna Nicole Smith, as it did in February 2007.
Even though it goes against habits of American governance, and even though the Obama administration and its allies are mired in the slow advance of other ambitious projects, now is the moment to advocate greatly expanding our public media. The rapid corrosion of our commercial news demands that something be done soon, and it is still early in the administration of a popular, progressive president, when sweeping changes are possible.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney have correctly deemed efforts to solve the news crisis a national infrastructure project [see "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," April 6]. We don't leave it up to private nonprofits to maintain our roads and bridges, outfit the Army or provide public transportation. Volunteer militias and private fire departments rightly did not survive the progressive reforms of the nineteenth century. You can still hire a private security firm or travel in a private jet, but the government also assures a basic measure of protection and mobility to every taxpaying citizen. Why shouldn't it be the same for the news and information whose circulation the founding fathers saw fit to protect in the First Amendment?
Total federal support for American public broadcast media in 2007 was about $480 million. That might seem sufficient or even impressive until you compare it with the BBC, which serves a nation with one-fifth the US population but which received the equivalent of $5.6 billion in government money in 2007. When it comes to public media, the United States is decisively outspent by the governments of most other major democracies. Japan, whose population is less than half the size of the United States', spent the equivalent of $6.8 billion for public broadcasting in 2007; Germany, with one-third the size, spent about $11 billion; and Canada, a tenth the size, spent $898 million. Even Denmark and Ireland, with populations smaller than New York City, far outspent the United States per capita, with respective budgets equivalent to $673 million and $296 million.
The amount the government now sets aside for public broadcast media is about what it costs the military to occupy Iraq for two and a half days. Taking into account the hundreds of billions lavished on the interim survival of our elite financial institutions, funding our news infrastructure won't be a hardship. Just a small fraction of the $45 billion--that's billion with a "b"--Citigroup alone has received since October 2008 would give NPR and PBS all the money they need.