As it happens, we already have NPR and PBS partially government-funded, along with their affiliate stations across the nation, at around $400 million annually. Like the BBC, these are highly regarded journalistic enterprises. But while NPR engages in worldwide reporting, that reporting is not anything close to the scale of either what is needed and possible, or to what peer systems have to work with in other countries. NPR programming reaches 26.8 million listeners “across the nation and territories” per week. The BBC’s World Service alone reaches about 180 million listeners weekly. In any case, we have been well served during much of our history by having a mixed system of both commercial and publicly supported media in the US. They often have different strengths and weaknesses, provide healthy competition for one another and, taken together, result in a robust diversity of news sources. Thus, America would be well advised to plan for a stronger publicly funded system of international news broadcasting of its own.
Meanwhile, for reaching global audiences, the US has a series of government-sponsored broadcasting entities set up primarily during the Cold War to combat Communist propaganda by communicating the position of the United States. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are the legendary institutions of this group, which also includes Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuba), and Alhurra (for the Middle East); collectively, these entities receive nearly $750 million in government funding annually. Interestingly, because these were established as communications media of the United States government, and therefore were seen as having the potential to spread our own propaganda and potentially infect the American marketplace of ideas, the Congress forbade these media from re-broadcasting back into the US, under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Even in the era of the Internet, where these media agencies have active and readily available websites, this prohibition remains in place (and seems to me at this point constitutionally suspect).
The more interesting problem, though, is why the US would continue to maintain and fund this dual system of respected journalism in NPR and PBS, on the one hand, and the international propaganda media, on the other, when what we—and the world—need more than anything is truly global journalism capable of reporting the news in an independent, objective, and professional manner.
That is why I propose something new, an American World Service: a media institution with sufficient funding to bring the highest-quality American journalism to the global public forum.
It is, of course, absolutely necessary that editorial autonomy for such an entity be secured. It is worth re-emphasizing that both NPR and PBS have achieved a status of highly respected journalism (as has the BBC) while using state funding. Experience demonstrates that it is possible to maintain such autonomy and independence with state funding. It is also worth noting that every system of funding for the press, including the free market, carries risks of funders—whether the state, or foundations, or advertisers—trying to exert undue and inappropriate influence. We, therefore, cannot escape the problem of improper interference by abandoning the idea of public funding.
In the end, what we want is a better, modern-day version of what we’ve had: a vibrant mixed system—mostly free market, with some publicly supported institutions—to achieve our overarching goal of acquiring the information we must have in order to forge both an understanding of, and a consensus about, what kind of world we want to create.
While it is true that government spending on television and radio has been opposed in some quarters of Congress for as long as we have had public broadcasting in this country—and that the political climate of the moment is notably hostile to this effort—it also is clear that the importance of foreign newsgathering to civic discourse in the US will continue to grow. If those of us committed to open and robust public debate refrain from making the case for an American World Service until all the political stars are in alignment, this inaction will further delay the creation of a true global public forum.
Globalization is the great change of our era, wrought of economic forces forging connections throughout the world and of new technologies making human communication far easier. We need institutions designed to help us understand, tame, and channel these largely positive forces, and a free and independent global press is one such institution.
More than anything, we need a change in consciousness—to envision the problem we must solve as not only a matter of securing human rights for peoples but also securing the information and ideas we need to govern effectively in an increasingly integrated world. This is the ultimate stage of a progressive shift from the local to the national to the global. An American World Service will help us get there.