We haven’t heard much about public media since Big Bird’s spotlight in last year’s presidential debates, but it remains one of our most trusted public institutions and our second favorite use of tax dollars after military defense. Now, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is set to lose five percent of its already meager budget thanks to the sequester. This comes at a time when we should actually be spending more on what has proven to be one of the best investments we can make as a society.

Unfortunately, even proponents of public media often do a poor job of making the case for public media, which currently receives about $1.39 per American per year, most of which gets distributed to local stations to help cover their costs. Rather than putting public media on the chopping block yet again, it’s time to shift the debate to reflect reality.

First, when we compare the U.S. to any other developed nation, we see that we have always been alone in allowing the bulk of our news and information, the lifeblood of democracy, to come from commercial outlets funded primarily by advertising. With the rise of broadcasting in the 1920s, the emerging industry worked to guarantee licensing policies that would be favorable to commercial interests and went out of its way to quash the calls for the kind of nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasting that was the norm in Britain and other European nations. Path dependence makes it difficult to depart from the status quo.

The $1.39 per American figure is based on CPB’s federal appropriation this yearNeoliberalism has not been kind to public media generally, but many outlets still manage to thrive around the world, notably the BBC, which despite the assault by the Rupert Murdoch camp, remains a vital institution in British life. Today, the majority of developed nations contribute significant state resources to public media, and various mechanisms help preserve their independence from political influence, such as multi-year funding plans. A 2011 report, “Public Media and Political Independence,” found that per capita spending on public media in other countries ranges from $30 to more than $130 per year.“In the global context, our public media system’s independent civic mission is woefully underfunded: U.S. per capita public spending is less than $4, far less than the $30 to $134 per capita for the 14 countries examined in this study.” via

Second, critics of federal funding for public media suggest that there already is an abundance of media to choose from, making public media unnecessary. What these critics mean is that there is an abundance of commercial media outlets controlled by a handful of profit-oriented corporations. “Market failure” is the term used to describe the dearth of quality, independent journalism among companies that prefer to serve up cheap reality television and talk shows in order to make money. Quality journalism is a public good that benefits everyone—similar to clean air and national defense—and requires extensive public funding. The founders of the republic knew this and granted enormous printing and postal subsidies that helped sustain journalism through the 19th century. One study calculates these early subsidies to be equivalent to $30 billion today.Also here.

Today, the independent blogosphere contributes to democratic discourse but does not have the resources to do the kind of original reporting we need.

Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2003Third, plenty of evidence suggests that public media outlets do a better job of providing news and information for a democracy. For example, a well-known 2003 University of Maryland study found that consumers of NPR and PBS had fewer misperceptions related to the war in Iraq than consumers of commercial media. More recently, a May 2012 survey from Farleigh Dickinson University found that NPR listeners have higher levels of knowledge of international current events than consumers of mainstream commercial outlets.“And people watching only The Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.” via And countries with strong public media systems have better records of civic knowledge and engagement than the U.S. regardless of differences in education level and other demographic data.

Further Reading

Ashley, S. (2013). The closing of the ether: Communication policy and the public interest in the United States and Great Britain, 1921–1926. Communication Law & Policy 18(1), 1-61.

Ashley, S. (In press). A historical comparison of the social origins of broadcasting policy, 1896-1920. Journal of Radio and Audio Media.

Fourth, American public media are often subject to charges of political bias and imbalance, but these are often matters of perspective. This type of bias is in the eye of the beholder. What is less subjective is the structural bias built into a predominantly commercial media system. The market favors speech that is favorable to the market, and we become so used to hearing voices that support this status quo that anything else seems radical. It’s easy to see that a media system of government propaganda controlled by officials is anathema to democratic values, but how is a predominantly commercial system controlled by profit motives any better?

We must remember that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our media system, which is structured through laws and policies that favor commercial interests. The U.S. system of broadcast licensing, for example, in which broadcasters are granted free use of the supposedly publicly owned airwaves, has been called a $70 billion giveaway. FCC commissioner Michael Copps told the New York Times that he hopes the Internet “doesn’t travel down the same road of special interest consolidation and gate-keeper control that other media and telecommunications industries—radio, television, film and cable—have traveled. What an historic tragedy it would be,” he said, “to let that fate befall the dynamism of the Internet.”

Communication policy historically has been viewed as a technical matter to be handled by experts and administrators, not by democratic choice. It’s time for that to change. The benefits of public media are widely acknowledged by Americans of all political stripes, and in our media-saturated information age, our ability to facilitate democratic media structures and institutions will play a role in deciding the fate of democracy itself.

 

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs.