Almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson was fighting to make 2016 better than it has been. Johnson was stumping for the Public Broadcasting Act, designed to fund independent journalism to cover vital yet unprofitable topics. After budget cuts, the act passed as a pale version of its former self. Fast-forward to today and witness three out of every five Americans distrustful of the mainstream media, an all-time low.
Johnson’s idea of an “American BBC” is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 1960s. The United States federal government needs to substantially increase its funding of public broadcasting. There is a clear demand for a robust, independent press — publicly funded, but free of government interference. This journalism is not confined to Johnson’s vision of a television network, but expanded to any medium that promotes the Jeffersonian ideal that liberty is “a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.”
I do not wish to determine whether American distrust in the media is actually warranted. For the sake of the argument presented here, it need only be shown that said demand for media exists. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, less than one in three Republicans trusts the “mass media.” The statistics for Democrats remain higher at slightly more than half, but the trust of independents has fallen down to one in three.
The lack of trust in mass media fuels Americans’ demand for public-interest journalism. Many people have turned to alternative sources of news, like highly partisan Facebook groups. A recent report by BuzzFeed revealed that between 20 and 40 percent of posts to these pages over the past year contained mostly false or a mix of true and false information. At the same time, these highly partisan pages like Occupy Democrats or Right Wing News have more fans on Facebook than Politico, CNN or ABC News.
Clearly, media corporations like Comcast, CBS, or Time Warner are not delivering the quantity of solid journalism that consumers desire. The solution to this problem lies with well-funded reporting on television and online. In their 2011 book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols show that many countries, particularly in Europe, fund public broadcasting as much as 75 times that of what we do in the United States.
This higher degree of funding is worth it. A 2009 study in the European Journal of Communication showed that those living in countries with well-funded, nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasting systems had a higher degree of political knowledge. There is also a smaller knowledge gap between the rich and poor in these countries.
Some may point out the existence of PBS and NPR and claim that America already funds independent media. These “titans” of public broadcasting currently receive 0.014 percent of the federal budget and even get less than 20 percent of their funding from the government. Most of the money allocated to PBS goes toward children’s programming. Simply put, these organizations aren’t cutting it.
Informative, independent journalism is a public good. This means that private firms tend to produce too little of it because it isn’t profitable. Real journalism is expensive, but it is incredibly important to cultivate an informed public. Government can provide a solution to issues with cost and quality. Perhaps Congress should start by creating a well-funded internet news site that can afford highly competent journalists who support nuanced views. This could be followed up by a television network. One thing is for certain: the demand is there.