Commercial licensees are making profits from scarce public resources, the airwaves; they must compensate the public for their access, just as resource companies do when they mine ore or cut trees in public parks. Moreover, as the Founders envisioned, freedom of the press and a healthy public square are vital to the republic—so vital that their pursuit is worthy of modest, content-neutral public investments in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly free-market system.
As has been pointed out many times in this magazine, professional reporting that bears witness to complex events and seeks to hold government and corporate power to account is expensive to produce. To do it well requires more training than is typically needed to hold a real estate license but less than is needed to perform brain surgery. To do it well over time, under periodic pressure from powerful opponents, requires resources, experience, and the contextual influence of professional norms and peer review.
As with medicine, law, and accounting, the evolution of journalism into a profession during the late twentieth century provided no guarantees against fraud or systemic failure, but it did bring with it an overall improvement in civic information and discourse, in comparison to the pre-professional days of tabloid murder sheets, extortionists with flash cameras, and heavily politicized muckrakers.
Still, to emphasize the enduring value of professional journalism does not require that we discount the value of amateurs. There are many who place their journalistic faith in new methodologies accessible by amateurs and enabled by digital technology—“crowdsourcing” to crack complex puzzles or muster public outcry, for example, or data-mining projects conceived by computer programmers, or the spread of citizen-reporters who bear witness to important events around the world with cell phones, without formal training beyond that required to post their clips to YouTube.
When it comes to media policy reform, it is fair for the amateurism optimists (as I think of them) to worry about an inherent bias toward large, professional organizations. This bias has been present, to cite one example, in the regulation of cable franchises at the county and city levels of government backed by federal law. That regime of rules was supposed to seed innovation on subsidized public, educational, and government channels. In many jurisdictions, it hasn’t. New policy ideas should be interrogated for biases against small innovators and cleansed of them where possible.
We do have reliable evidence that the public continues to value mainstream professional journalism, however, even when so many new choices are available in digital spaces. For example, the total audience for the best newspaper journalism has grown markedly since 2000, if online readers are taken into account. The audiences for existing public media outlets in the U.S. are also healthy and growing. The country’s 365 public television stations have 61 million viewers each week, according to research by Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair of Public Affairs Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. Public radio has 30 million listeners. During the last two decades, the total audience for NPR member stations has grown 176 percent, including a 9 percent expansion during the last five years. Altogether, the public broadcasting system reaches 98 percent of the American population. Opinion surveys also show that the public media outlets enjoy considerably higher trust than do their commercial counterparts.
Our public media system has achieved this extraordinary result despite being starved for public funds, in comparison to other industrialized countries. The U. S. spends about $1.43 per capita, or $420 million a year, on public media. Great Britain spends about $87 per capita. Canada, one of the most miserly among industrialized countries, spends about $27 per capita. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget has increased less than 5 percent in real terms since 1982.
The U.S. has always taken less government-driven approaches to media policy than other rich countries, and in these fiscally challenged times it is unrealistic to consider increases in funding from the general tax base. But it should be possible to pursue reforms and add funding to public media without making any significant call on general revenues.