If you wished to see a vivid illustration of how the broadcast news media in the US are perceived in 2011, you could do worse than watch President Obama tell jokes.
At the White House correspondents’ dinner he delivered a left and a right, so to speak. First, he played his “official birth video,” a clip from Disney’s animated Lion King. ”That was a joke,” he enunciated at the table for Fox News, the network that has facilitated “birther” rumors that the president was born in Kenya. Then he looked around the glitzy gathering to find National Public Radio: “You guys are still here?” he quipped, referring obliquely to congressional thundering against continued public funding for the network, adding, “I was looking forward to new programming like No Things Considered ”
That’s about it in a nutshell. On one side, successful commercially funded entities that are popularly characterized as having abandoned high-quality reporting for ratings, one way or another, to one degree or another. On the other side, a public media system with a highbrow reputation but a political mountain to climb to maintain the public portion of its funding.
And somehow the two parts are not greater than the whole. America lacks a central voice in terms of both reporting itself to the world and the world to its diverse citizens. This puts the country at a disadvantage. The quality of its democracy suffers, as does its global image.
In the first two weeks of March, when I began working on this article, the news media in the US had two very different unfolding protest stories to follow. One was the latest wave of the Arab Spring, which rolled into Bahrain that month and met violent resistance from the authorities. The other uprising, less violent but similarly newsworthy, was taking place in Madison, Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker’s union busting “budget-repair bill” hit a wall of public workers and Democratic senators fled the state in an attempt to hold up its passage.
As an avid consumer of news, and as someone who is relatively new to the US, it was striking and a little disconcerting to find out how hard it was to follow either narrative arc contemporaneously through the mainstream media. I remember a particular evening in mid-March when Twitter alerted users to the fact that both #Bahrain and #Wisconsin were “trending,” yet it was impossible to find comprehensive coverage of either story. Cable news did not break its schedule to bring the news instantly; the New York Times website, normally a source of wide-ranging news, was slow to update; on the radio, NPR made clear that it is not a twenty-four-hour service. All outlets eventually carried some coverage of both stories, of course, but locating information about events in Madison and Manama as they unfolded in real time was difficult.
Back in Britain, when momentous events were unfolding, I would switch on the BBC, or click on its website, confident that I would be able to find a broad, if sometimes shallow, impression of what was going on in the world. The BBC is omnipresent in the UK—an all-encompassing news website, eight national TV channels and ten national radio channels, dozens more local and international channels, outlets on each platform dedicated to breaking news. In the US, I seem to have no such go-to broadcast news source when big stories break. Like what I expect is an increasing number of people, I find myself reliant on social media feeds. Is this a problem at all? Is it a problem for Americans?
These days, my default position for big stories is to follow the stream of aggregated news from multiple sources—Facebook and Twitter, as well as search engines like Google News. Here, links from domestic sources such as CNN blend increasingly with international coverage from convergent news organizations, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera English, which reach wide audiences with web and broadcast platforms far outside their domestic markets.
The web is increasing audiences for news, but growth is often outside domestic markets and not supported by proportionate advertising increases. Those who benefit most from this situation are often the news organizations that have funding models that allow a concentration on editorial firepower and reach, in terms of how many million visitors see a story, rather than revenue. And predominant among that group are often state and publicly funded media entities.