Tuesday, October 13, 2009

one case for a public press

Two of the most talked about proposals for saving journalism are going not-for profit -- either supporting news orgs with philanthropic donations or with tax dollars. For each proposal, there are pros and cons, not the least of which is whether or not such support might constrain the credibility of the news-gathering process. (More on this to come.)

In this week's The Nation, William F. Baker, former president of WNET in New York, our largest PBS station, makes his case for a government-supported public media, making a comparison to Britain's BBC:

Total federal support for American public broadcast media in 2007 was about $480 million. That might seem sufficient or even impressive until you compare it with the BBC, which serves a nation with one-fifth the US population but which received the equivalent of $5.6 billion in government money in 2007. When it comes to public media, the United States is decisively outspent by the governments of most other major democracies. Japan, whose population is less than half the size of the United States', spent the equivalent of $6.8 billion for public broadcasting in 2007; Germany, with one-third the size, spent about $11 billion; and Canada, a tenth the size, spent $898 million. Even Denmark and Ireland, with populations smaller than New York City, far outspent the United States per capita, with respective budgets equivalent to $673 million and $296 million.

The amount the government now sets aside for public broadcast media is about what it costs the military to occupy Iraq for two and a half days. Taking into account the hundreds of billions lavished on the interim survival of our elite financial institutions, funding our news infrastructure won't be a hardship. Just a small fraction of the $45 billion--that's billion with a "b"--Citigroup alone has received since October 2008 would give NPR and PBS all the money they need.

Unlike the benefits that come from bailing out investment banks and insurance conglomerates, a stronger investment in public media would give all citizens a concrete and valuable service. Turn on cable TV news to find out about an event overseas, and you are likely to see a panel of well-coiffed pundits sitting in a studio in New York, Washington or Los Angeles debating what might be happening on the other side of the world. Switch to the same story on the BBC, and you are likely to see a correspondent on the ground where the event is actually taking place. The BBC's forty-one permanent foreign bureaus are more than twice the number maintained by ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS each. This isn't a difference of national character; it's simply a matter of money. For commercial TV, paying pundits is a lot cheaper than doing the real work of reporting. And for public media, chronically small budgets often make extensive original reporting too expensive, even for respected shows like NewsHour.

Interesting. bk

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