Why ‘Defunding’ Public Broadcasting Is a Crisis

Why ‘Defunding’ Public Broadcasting Is a Crisis

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It's well enough that we can reasonably rely on the Senate to reject the egregious bill the House approved last week – the one “defunding” public broadcasting. But there the matter cannot sit. The larger question is what value Americans attach to journalism and whether most of us realize the crisis this essential component of a properly functioning democracy has fallen into.

It should be plain by now that the corporate-ownership model that has sustained American journalism since the mid-nineteenth century has collapsed before our eyes. About half of all journalism jobs in the U.S. have disappeared in the past decade, according to FreePress.net, an advocacy and research site. This leaves great swaths of American public life to function without scrutiny. New models are emerging, a number of them promising, but many of the remaining traditional media are hobbling, with owners resorting to celebrity and entertainment "news" (cheap to produce) and neglecting serious coverage (too damaging to the quarterly bottom line). Advertising as the key revenue source for newspapers and broadcasters has had a long run, but with the possible exception of network television, the run is over and unlikely to come back.

Do we count serious, informative journalism – international, national, state, municipal, local – among our public goods, no less essential to our well-being than clean water? This is the question, not whether we'll scrape by with things as they are because of a Senate vote. If yes is our answer, it's time to start thinking about more public support for our media, not less. Americans are not strangers to this idea; they only pretend to be. Postal subsidies have been key to the survival of print publications since the eighteenth century, when the government made it a point to cultivate a strong, independent press; more recently, America sold its broadcast spectrum to private companies much the way it hands out mining rights in the West—so cheaply they are effectively subsidized.

Public involvement in media (as opposed to ownership) can take many forms, and it has a long record of success in other nations. For each $1.40 the U.S. spends per capita on public broadcasting, Canada spends $22, Britain $80, and the Scandinavians just over $100. Lots of research and numerous studies indicate that these nations have livelier, healthier media cultures than America’s. A high bar is set, and competition for quality is enhanced. David Watts, foreign news editor of The Sunday Times of London, puts it as well as anyone when he considers the government-supported British Broadcasting Corporation. "Not everything is right about the BBC," he says, "but there's no question of its capabilities and its contribution to standards, even when others beat it." 

One vote in the Senate saving PBS and NPR for the time being is not the answer to America’s media crisis. A fundamental change in our thinking—with fulsome reference to our native tradition of public support—is what Americans ought to be moving toward.

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Patrick Smith, a correspondent abroad for many years, is a columnist essayist, critic, and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him @psmith7600 or on his web site, patricklawrence.us.