Government plays an even more significant role in subsidizing broadcast media, a role that has important implications for how Uncle Sam might help the flailing industry of print journalism. Moreover, many newspapers and magazines are controlled by companies that also own television and radio stations and, as such, indirectly benefit from broadcast subsidies. In an essay on the role of government in the press for the 2004 Breaux Symposium, Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News and PBS, recalls an argument he once had with Abe Rosenthal, then the editor of The New York Times, over the premiere of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report: “Abe launched into a passionate attack against the very idea that public television, a government-created institution, should report the news and practice journalism, insisting that it could not do so without kowtowing to the government.” Grossman “responded rather mischievously” that the Times’s radio and television stations received their broadcast licenses free from the government, a subsidy worth millions of dollars. “Did Abe think the Times’s radio and television stations also should refrain from reporting the news?” asks Grossman. As he and others note, the enormous profits of network television and radio companies are in no small part due to their free access to the public airwaves. (The print press, on the other hand, receives no such subsidy for its equivalent—paper and printing costs.)
Meanwhile, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private nonprofit established in 1967, receives money from Congress every two years to support public radio and television programming. Though it no longer provides the majority of support to PBS or National Public Radio, the corporation was responsible for the formation and early financial viability of these outlets. As Steven Rattner noted during the CJR panel, radio news “was a classic case of market failure. There was a latent demand for it If you hadn’t had government subsidizing it, demonstrating that there was an audience, we wouldn’t have NPR.” The explosive growth of NPR—a roughly 100 percent increase in listenership over the last decade—has also shown that consumer demand does not always guarantee profitability. Some products and services need more time to develop into something consumers are willing to pay for. (Listener contributions now make up one third of NPR’s revenue.)
Of course, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has had its problems. The fact that its board members are presidential appointees makes it vulnerable to political influence. Both the Nixon and the current administrations have attempted to censor or influence programming. But, says Karr, “We have a system in place right now that generates four to five hundred million dollars for public media. We can’t just destroy it. We have to build upon it.”
Another government media subsidy, which has thus far been more harmful than helpful to traditional print media (though arguably helpful to democracy), is the Internet. Similar to the development of the telegraph, which was subsidized by the government, the Internet began as a Defense Department initiative that later received significant funding from the National Science Foundation before being turned over to the commercial sector. “Without government subsidies, there would be no Internet,” writes Grossman. “No for-profit company or entrepreneur would have taken the risk.”
By clinging to the idea that they work in a profession free of government involvement, journalists are perpetuating a myth that may impede the future of their profession. As Overholser says, “Government is already playing all kinds of roles for good and for ill. And we ignore that at our peril. We’re just ignorant about it.” Still, in the last few years, as the traditional business model has fallen apart, a number of journalists and scholars have begun to discuss possible solutions, including the once-taboo subject of government support. “People are feeling so unsettled,” says Overholser. “The good news is we’re in such a crisis that you can’t just sleepwalk through it anymore.”
Before we begin a discussion of the ways in which government might do more to ensure a healthy future for journalism, it is important to address a basic question that lies at the heart of the debate on solutions to the problems of the press: Given the rise of information on the Internet, what, exactly, is worth saving? The answer: ground-level reporting.
Daniel Hallin, chairman of the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, points out what he calls “one of the greatest ironies” of today’s vast media landscape: “In this so-called information age, we actually have fewer reporters now gathering the basic information on which the whole information society operates.” According to Hallin, the proliferation of media outlets and programming is largely occurring in two domains: commentary and entertainment. “The amount of serious information-gathering is actually going down,” he says. “Dramatically so.” Few Web sites independent of newspapers are doing serious newsgathering.