How to Save the News
Unlike the benefits that come from bailing out investment banks and insurance conglomerates, a stronger investment in public media would give all citizens a concrete and valuable service. Turn on cable TV news to find out about an event overseas, and you are likely to see a panel of well-coiffed pundits sitting in a studio in New York, Washington or Los Angeles debating what might be happening on the other side of the world. Switch to the same story on the BBC, and you are likely to see a correspondent on the ground where the event is actually taking place. The BBC's forty-one permanent foreign bureaus are more than twice the number maintained by ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS each. This isn't a difference of national character; it's simply a matter of money. For commercial TV, paying pundits is a lot cheaper than doing the real work of reporting. And for public media, chronically small budgets often make extensive original reporting too expensive, even for respected shows like NewsHour.
To discern the real view the American people hold toward public media, it is necessary to pay attention to one fact: voluntary viewer donations provide the biggest chunk of the money that keeps public media in business, and have done so for a very long time. The phrase "supported by viewers like you" is more than a marketing bromide. Except for stalwarts like the Ford and MacArthur foundations and Mutual of America, and in years past Exxon and AT&T, foundation and corporate giving has never provided as much to public television as small individual pledges. But despite its reliability, voluntary public subscription is no way to fund a major public service.
Throughout the two decades I was president of WNET, New York's PBS station, I spent a lot of time standing in front of cameras asking viewers for money, so I don't feel ashamed or unqualified to say that even though it has essentially saved the medium and mobilized millions of Americans, the drawn-out, droning pledge drive may finally be reaching a point of diminishing return. After factoring in the salaries of development departments, the costs of direct mail and on-air solicitation, premiums, thank-you letters and the requisite tote bag, a sizable portion of every dollar that comes in to public television is already spent. There is also the less quantifiable cost in viewers who, when faced with a pledge drive, simply change the channel.
For more than fifty years the American people have shown, through their generous donations, that they support the idea and the reality of public media. The government should acknowledge those decades of widespread support by funding NPR and PBS both more extensively and more efficiently.
By increasing direct allocations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is responsible for disbursing funding to public TV and radio affiliates across America, the inherent inefficiencies of fundraising via public appeal would be eliminated, and countless hours of airtime would be liberated from pledge drives. It would also mean that Americans would get more in return for the money they already pay to maintain the public media distribution network, which delivers NPR and PBS to 100 percent of the country.
Perhaps most important, pumping more money into our public media infrastructure could fortify the eroding foundation of print journalism, on which the rest of news media depend. News shows on PBS and NPR already routinely call on newspaper and magazine reporters to provide coverage. Expanding this practice could mean jobs for the rapidly growing number of unemployed print journalists, or even the survival of entire newsrooms in cities with closed or downsizing papers.
Once a newspaper or magazine is lost, its particular blend of institutional history, editorial and reporting expertise, and its ties to the community are never fully recoverable. But an expanded public media network, capable of deploying reporters across the nation and around the world, would at least make sure that someone is always available to gather the news, and keep government and business responsible to the public interest.
The costs of letting our journalistic institutions decay aren't visible like collapsed bridges or tent cities, but they're just as dire. A thriving news media, which America is in real danger of losing, is the unspoken assumption behind not only the First Amendment but the whole idea of self-government. It shouldn't seem radical to expect the same government that recognizes the freedom of the press to also ensure the survival of the press.