The highly decentralized nature of US public media was always intended in part to ensure that state-funded media did not reach the levels of dominance scaled by the BBC.
This is very much the main point of the monograph Nixon and the Politics of Public Television by David Stone, which is being republished this fall by the New America Foundation as part of its Media Policy Initiative program. Stone, now executive vice president of communications and public affairs at Columbia University, wrote the original paper almost thirty years ago, but the fierce antipathy Richard Nixon’s administration showed toward public broadcasting, following Lyndon Johnson’s creation of the system with the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, is remarkably similar to the contemporary pressures faced by the entities that law created—public media’s main funding body, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and its main beneficiaries, TV’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).
Since I come from the UK, where the BBC has been the culturally dominant force for more than seventy years, the idea that there is not one outlet dedicated to telling the whole nation what is going on in the world right now is disorienting. But to US audiences, many of its politicians, and even many of its journalists, the idea that your dominant media authority would be publicly funded is the very vision of a dystopian horror.
In the past, such cultural differences have been interesting but not much more than that, because these outlets operated pretty much in isolation. It took television technology more than fifty years before the market was ready for international TV services. Until CNN International’s arrival in 1985, five years after CNN’s birth, news channels on television operated for their domestic audiences only. The BBC only extended its international TV reach after that, in 1987, with the stuttering start of BBC TV Europe, which became part of BBC World in 1991.
Then came the Internet in the mid-1990s. In addition to upending the financial model to support news, the global interconnectedness of the Internet as a delivery system has also had the effect of creating a new global market. Citizens can converse and consume beyond their borders, and news organizations can transcend previous formats and licensing arrangements to reach much bigger international audiences. Just as the revenue opportunities are shrinking, so the opportunities of reach are expanding. And again, some advantage goes to state-funded media, which do not have to worry as much about revenue and can focus on content and distribution.
In the US, the lack of a clear path toward funding what has been called “accountability journalism” has triggered a number of suggestions that the country should rethink its resistance to publicly funded media. In 2009, Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia Journalism School professor and CJR contributor, wrote a report, published here in CJR, called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” Among several recommendations was one that public funding for journalism be increased, via the Federal Communications Commission, which would contribute a portion of its fees from telephone networks, broadcast licenses, and spectrum auctions to create a new Fund for Local News. It also recommended a more consolidated approach toward distributing funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, giving larger sums to fewer recipients, and suggested that this body change its name to the Corporation for Public Media.
The same year, Princeton professor Paul Starr, testifying before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee during a hearing on “the future of newspapers,” called for more government support of journalism, holding up as encouraging the example of public broadcasting, which he said “has become an important source of news and public-affairs discussion.”
But two years later, for those who had hopes that a serious discussion about public funding for the press would arrive, the world has moved backward. As most readers know, NPR has suffered through a plethora of public controversies this year (Juan Williams, Ellen Weiss, James O’Keefe, et al.), culminating in the resignation of NPR’s president and chief executive, Vivian Schiller. A week later the House of Representatives voted to strip NPR of its government funding, though the measure is expected to fail.