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services, it continues to have bureaus and correspondents abroad while our three major broadcast networks largely have withdrawn from the field.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.

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.

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.