Once again, America’s public broadcasters face the real possibility that their federal funding will vanish. This time, opponents are using the results of a dubious sting operation and the federal deficit as rationales for scrapping spending. But during an economic crisis, we need more reporting, more coverage, and more accountability, not less.
Slashing funding for All Things Considered and Sesame Street won’t fix the deficiencies in TV and radio programming, and we shouldn’t trim the deficit at the expense of an informed citizenry. Instead, we should champion a truly independent media system that’s free to tell stories that aren’t commercially viable and serve people advertisers aren’t interested in.
Is that really possible? Can the government foster a robust public media system and keep it independent and unbiased? Absolutely. And before political gamesmanship erases some of our most trusted sources of news and information, we should take a step back and take a serious look at the positive role public media plays around the world.
Study after study affirms public media’s crucial role in informing citizens. In countries with strong public media, public knowledge about government and international affairs is substantially higher than in countries dominated by commercial media. This holds true across demographic groups despite differences in education, income, and race or ethnicity. Greater public funding, insulated from short-term political whims, also counters any tendencies toward liberal or conservative bias by making the media more independent of political patronage and commercial pressure.
Do public media work perfectly? Of course not. They have blind spots, as do commercial media. What’s clear is that the Internet and commercial media, increasingly oriented toward niche audiences, can’t replace public media in informing the entire citizenry. At a time when many commercial media are cutting back on the kind of journalism that holds public officials accountable, public media across the world continue to make substantial investments in investigative reporting.
But what would it take to foster robust public media in the United States?
First, we must increase funding instead of slashing it. Even slight increases have an impact on the quality of journalism and programming. In a recent study of public media around the world, Matthew Powers and I examined 14 other leading democracies–Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK–and found that per capita public media spending in those countries ranges from $30 to more than $130. The United States spends a pittance, less than $1.50 per person in federal funding per year.
The highest quality, most independent public media systems–such as those in Germany, the UK, and Scandinavian countries–are those that rely on a steady, substantial stream of public funding. While many of these countries also face substantial budget deficits, there’s no serious talk of zeroing out public media.
In addition to robust funding, it takes smart policies that insulate public media from political meddling and partisan influence.
When funding is set for a multi-year period, it’s harder for governments to punish public media for programming they don’t like. When countries go from multi-year funding to annual parliamentary appropriations–as happened in New Zealand–both independence and quality decline.
Strong legal protections of autonomy are key. The UK’s Royal Charter sets goals and funding for 10-year periods. That limits the government’s capacity to micro-manage the BBC. In Germany, funding is set by an independent body empowered to set appropriations only on the basis of technical and professional criteria. Recent German court cases have confirmed the independence of funding decisions from any parliamentary interference.
NPR and PBS fill a void left by commercial media and are consistently among the most trusted sources of news and information. Congress should draw on successful examples worldwide to ensure that public media can’t be punished for politically unpopular programming decisions. Democracy works better when you have well-funded, autonomous public media. Cutting the budget shouldn’t mean cutting back on democracy.