In a laudable attempt to make sense of the troubled state of U.S. journalism, a new report from the Knight Commission says Congress should “increase the funding available for the transformation and localization of America’s public media.” That’s a bad idea for at least two reasons. First, the watchdog of the government cannot rely on government for a good portion of its care and feeding. Journalists covering government must maintain their independence. And second, the last thing newspapers and TV stations need right now is more competition for the attention of consumers and for the marketing dollars of businesses.
Each morning, I am awakened at 5 a.m. when my clock radio switches on to WNYC, the dominant noncommercial radio station in New York.
Now, I didn’t say I get up.
For at least a half hour, I lay there listening to NPR’s Morning Edition and I continue listening on a portable radio as I prepare for the day.
On days when I can’t get to the New York Times, NPR tells me most of what I am to know about the world. (The Star-Ledger and the local evening newscasts tell me what I am to know about New York and New Jersey.)
The point is, I’m a fan of the journalism practiced by NPR. It’s smart, insightful, polished and surprising. The features that it weaves into the news introduce me to people and places that I am happy to know and that I would never think to seek out on my own. Today, I met Gustavo Dudamel.
One day I hope to meet correspondent Sylvia Poggioli simply because I like the way she says her name.
But despite my love and reliance on NPR, I am troubled by the idea of the federal government pumping more money into public media, particularly the local variety.
The idea seems to be gaining currency among those genuinely concerned that quality journalism is declining along with the financial fortunes of newspapers and commercial broadcasting, the legacy media that have brought our Republic this far.
Last week, the idea showed up in Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, an elaborate look into what it is going to take to make sure we have the right mix of media to keep the electorate up to speed.
The study is the work of the Knight Commission, a group of media experts and thinkers that includes former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and Robert Decherd, CEO of the A.H. Belo Corp. (newspapers) and chairman of Belo Corp. (TV stations).
Among its many findings and conclusions was that Congress should “increase the funding available for the transformation and localization of America’s public media.”
The report says we’re just not keeping up with the Joneses.
“Other countries with similar commitments to freedom of speech and of the press make much larger per capita contributions to the financing of public media,” it says. “The United States federal government, for example, spends $1.35 per capita for public media, as compared to $22.48 per capita in Canada and $80.36 per capita in England.”
As much as I like NPR and other aspects of public TV and radio, I don’t see public media as the solution to our journalism woes. For one thing, public media cannot be the counterbalance to government at any level, a terribly important role for journalism in sustaining democracy in any age.
The watchdog of the government cannot rely on government for a good portion of its care and feeding. Journalists covering government must maintain their independence.
It also seems that handing over more government cash to public media so that they can do more local reporting would simply aggravate the troubles of the local legacy media.
The last thing newspapers and TV stations need right now is more competition for the attention of consumers and for the marketing dollars of businesses. (Those underwriting dollars that public stations boast of are advertising dollars in disguise.)
Each person that tunes in or goes online with public media is one person lost to commercial media.
When they were flush and assured of double-digit growth in good years, broadcasters didn’t worry much about public TV and radio. Noncommercial stations didn’t draw many viewers or listeners and they kept policymakers off commercial broadcasters’ backs by providing the kind of public service they didn’t want to.
But now, every viewer and listener counts as rating points fragment, revenue shrinks and margins narrow. Commercial stations and the journalism they support should not have to compete with entities being subsidized by the government — at least no more than they are now.
And, as I’ve said here before, I’m not sure that competition necessarily fosters good journalism. In fact, it often brings out the worse in it.
Think about it: American newspapers were at there best — financially and journalistically — after they became de facto monopolies in their local markets.
We should all appreciate the Knight Commission and similar efforts to sort out the mess that professional journalism now finds itself in. But we should also be wary of more federal money being the fix. It could make matters worse.
P.S. While I have doubts about the Knight Commission prescription for fixing news, I applaud it for the admonition against too much government regulation.
“Agencies should regularly re-examine whether rules serve the proper ends of public policy in light of changing economic and technological conditions. This includes rules regarding property rights, ownership limits and the legal obligations of media firms.”
I suggest one small edit: change “Agencies” to “The FCC.”
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].