Good Journalism Is Not Free, and Somebody’s Got to Pay for It

If money is the “mother’s milk” of politics then media must be its baby food. To some conservatives the media are just another way to make money. Television was “just another household appliance, a toaster with a picture,” as Ronald Reagan’s appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Fowler, famously described it.

More ideologically inclined right-wingers have used media as a means of movement building—one that liberals have sought to emulate. But liberals and progressives see another side of media as well. A genuinely diverse and democratic media based in communities of both concern and geography has the power to inform people of facts and evidence and enable them to form a powerful public voice to stand up to monied and other powerful interests.

John Dewey and Walter Lippmann disagreed on a great deal in their famous debate over the value and purpose of media in the formation of “public opinion” during the 1920s. But neither one doubted its importance in terms of giving everyday people the opportunity both to track their leaders’ actions and to form their own views on issues in conjunction with the other members of their communities, however defined.

Groups like Free Press, the Media Access Project, the Center for American Progress, and the New America Foundation, together with Moveon.org, have already done a good job helping to publicize—and organize—on behalf of issues related to keeping our media open for democratic communication, particularly with regard to media concentration. The danger today, however, is that questions relating to the fairness and openness of America’s “marketplace of ideas” will be buried beneath an avalanche of both jargon and apathy. The issues are growing very complicated and media companies are encountering difficulties in retaining their commitment to expensive forms of journalism at a time when the advertising base to support such forms is disappearing into the ether.

Progressives cannot afford to allow this to happen. A few foundations and university-affiliated journalism schools have made tentative contributions to filling in what were once the functions of for-profit journalism institutions. But more foundations and universities need to be encouraged to step into this breach as well and to do so quickly.

As a professor of journalism, I can tell you we are already losing many of our future Seymour Hershes and Jane Mayers to career paths that do not appear to be evaporating before our eyes. Indeed, we are losing an entire generation of them. Already, the ratio of public relations people to working journalists is close to 4-to-1—only 30 years ago it was just a little more than 1-to-1. And if you believe you are getting better, more dependable information from PR hacks than from professional journalists, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

Meanwhile, authors Leonard Downie, Jr., and Michael Schudson report, “Fewer journalists are reporting less news in fewer pages.” According to the “State of the News Media 2010” report, “Newsrooms have shrunk by 25% in [just] the past three years.” Those that remain are now called upon to do more and more with less and less. Podcasts, videochats, blogging, and interactive engagement with readers, viewers, and listeners in comments sections all detract from the essential mission of investigation, interpretation, and synthesis for the purposes of informing and educating the larger public.

And even though some of these developments have undoubtedly been valuable in forcing an often arrogant and disconnected media establishment to respond to the everyday reality of Americans’ actual lives, the overall effect is a diminution in the foundation of public knowledge, the essential foundation of democracy.

A few highly motivated individuals and organizations have attempted to fill the gap by founding new nonprofit media organizations. These include:

  • The investigative team of reporters created by Propublica, which is funded by the civic-minded billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler and headed by Paul E. Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal
  • The Center for Independent Media, headed by David Bennahum, a former writer at Wired
  • The creation of a series of local-news-oriented partnerships with journalism schools like those at Columbia and the City University of New York, or CUNY, which employ faculty and students to cover stories that are no longer economically affordable for local newspapers
  • Too many other small and still incipient ventures to mention

But however valuable any of these individual efforts turn out to be, they function pretty much like cocktail umbrellas in the midst of a hurricane. With the core news function of for-profit media increasingly on life support in the United States, we need to find ways to preserve investigative journalism and well-informed discourse as a public good, just like public safety and clean air, lest we be left with what Michael J. Copps, a visionary commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, describes as “a seriously dumbed-down democratic dialogue, diminished civic engagement and the absence of meaningful public interest oversight.”

The airwaves, believe it or not, are owned by the public—not the corporations that profit from them. And yet media companies are able to reap billions from their use of the airwaves with nothing but a “postcard” process of renewal every eight years to determine whether they are even pretending to serve the public interest.

A campaign for taxpayer-funded high-quality journalism based on the model of the British Broadcasting Corporation—and recently suggested by the Leonard Downie, Jr., and Michael Schudson study published by the Columbia University School of Journalism—should not be off the table. Americans currently pay about $1.35 each in tax dollars to support noncommercial media, compared to about $25 in Canada, Australia, and Germany; nearly $60 in Japan; $80 in Britain; and more than $100 in Denmark and Finland. A similar fee in the United States would yield as much as $35 billion every year.

And the proof is in the pudding. If we compare the resources and the potential for intelligent, informative democratic debate between, say, the BBC and our own underfunded, politically cautious Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds the Public Broadcasting Service, it is not a pretty picture. The loss, for instance, of Bill Moyers on PBS—whose frequently fearless discussions and debates were always a source of decided discomfort to the comfortable coalition of corporate and political players who expect to dominate the news—appears to have left an irreplaceable gap in our broadcast media landscape despite the commitment of many on PBS and National Public Radio to do what they can to uphold professional standards of honesty and decency.

As the report’s authors argue:

Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their Web sites. This requires urgent action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, increased congressional funding and support for public media news reporting, and changes in mission and leadership for many public stations across the country.

In particular, they add:

… a national Fund for Local News should be created with money the Federal Communications Commission now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers and which would be administered in open competition through state Local News Fund Councils.

Many in the media in particular, but also in private industry, are understandably skeptical and even hostile to anything that smacks of government funding of media. They fear its association with totalitarian regimes and susceptibility to political pressure. But as University of Illinois professor and tireless crusader for media democracy Robert McChesney and John Nichols point out:

… we looked at the Economist magazine, and they rank every country in the world on how democratic it is and how open its governance is, how little corruption there is, how free people are, their civil liberties. … and the top six countries they ranked as the freest, most democratic countries were just about the six heaviest press-subsidizing nations in the world. The United States ranks well below them. Then we looked at Freedom House, a conservative group whose whole mission is to monitor government censorship and harassment of private commercial media, that’s its whole reason for existence, and it ranks every country in the world on how free the private press are in each of these countries every year. … Well you go down their list of the six freest private presses in the world and they’re pretty much in the six most heavy press-subsidizing nations that have those vibrant freest press systems. The United States is tied for 21st.

Government funding of media can be done because it is being done. And McChesney and others have come up with citizen-directed schemes to allocate the funds without much or any official interference.

A strong, vibrant media sector is essential despite the countless complications involved in preserving the independence and integrity of the news while simultaneously setting up fair and unbiased funding mechanisms, ensuring access to broadband communications for everyone, and enabling those without the support of megacorporations to be heard in the public sphere. Without it, the future of informed democratic debate in the United States, public education on crucial issues, and grassroots organizing for citizen action are in jeopardy.

For as Walter Lippmann warned almost a century ago, “When the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” the public is left at the mercy of “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo and the terrorist.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.