To those who believe that public funding is inconsistent with our free-press traditions, here are a few facts. First, our modern press is the result of a complex structure that has more components than just private ownership operating in an open and free market. Newspapers have, indeed, largely been under private ownership, though by the middle of the twentieth century, it was clear that features of the daily newspaper business were leading to monopoly status in virtually every city across the country. Most American cities have one daily, a situation that is part blessing and part curse. Even this largely unregulated market in daily newspapers produced a better product (in the sense of elevating their capacity to inform their readers and the public) for reasons beyond “business,” by not pocketing all of their monopolistic profits, but instead by investing in hiring specialized reporters to deepen their coverage. This began in the 1970s and continued until recently, when under major new technological and marketplace pressures and through the loss of its previous monopolistic protections, the press began shedding journalistic capacity.

Broadcasting, meanwhile, was designed (under the Radio Act of 1927 and then the Communications Act of 1934) to be comprised of private owners licensed by the government and regulated according to the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” That system included regulations intended to expand the range of voices the “public” needed to hear, yet would not if the “licensees” solely followed their “business” interests. Hence the government devised policies to promote coverage of “local” news, “fairness” in the discussion of public issues, and “equal time” in the coverage of candidates for public office—all upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional under the First Amendment.

Finally, there is another branch of the US media, the system of public broadcasting, surviving in part through direct public funding.

So while the market is a powerful system for a strong free press and must be the dominant model, there is no reason in experience to conclude that a free market alone will yield the press we need. My point is not that in order to sustain a high-quality institution of the press, you must rely on monopolies and public funding and regulation. It is rather that we need to be realistic about how we got to the point at which we created a high-quality press, and realize that it will not happen again with a free market operating alone. We should realistically consider what might be done to enhance the opportunities for the press to produce high-quality journalism in a global public forum.

To that end, I have a concrete suggestion. as noted above, other nations are using their state-sponsored and funded media to establish a broad global presence, and through that to advance their national agendas. We in the United States cannot take it for granted that global competitors like Al Jazeera, or China’s CCTV or Xinhua News, will just naturally evolve into the quality of journalism both the US and the world needs. To be sure, CNN provides one home-grown model of a successful American news broadcaster with global editorial reach. Along with a small handful of our national newspapers and wire services, it continues to have bureaus and correspondents abroad while our three major broadcast networks largely have withdrawn from the field. When there is major breaking news either in the US or abroad, CNN and CNN International have frequently excelled at providing live coverage. But we know that commercial pressures, as well as loss of domestic audience share to more explicitly ideological competitors on the right and left, have caused CNN’s international news coverage to become more reactive and less committed to sustained, in-depth reporting. While natural disasters or violent conflicts typically bring out the best in CNN’s reporting, American viewers and listeners must turn to our own public broadcasters, NPR and PBS, for day-to-day insight into important but more routine political and business news stories from around the world. The ironic fact is that, in addition to NPR’s own high-quality international coverage, these US public broadcasters are providing American audiences with the news reporting of the BBC and the BBC World Service, which comes to us largely courtesy of British taxpayers.

Lee C. Bollinger is the president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide Open: A Free Press for a New Century (Oxford, 2010). This article is adapted from a September 2010 lecture delivered by Bollinger at the University of Illinois College of Law. A previous version was published in the University of Illinois Law Review.