Could Congress save journalism?
Note: I’ve spent my professional career as a reporter and producer in public radio newsrooms at KLCC, NPR, and KUOW. Dr. Chris Chavez is also a mentor and former colleague.
Journalism as an industry is experiencing intense growing pains. Newsrooms are laying off dozens of employees as megacompanies buy up local papers. Advertising revenue, once secured between the folds, is gaining near non-existent traction in digital spaces. Trust in the industry’s staple institutions is beginning to crumble as fake news floods the corners of the internet; antagonisms to the industry are rising and are regularly espoused from an increasingly bullysome pulpit. This year, the United States’ dropped from 45th-48th on the world press freedom index — giving it a “problematic” designation.
The enthusiasm, trust and money, the last several years have shown, just aren’t there.
The interpretations of this crisis are plentiful. For some, the massive layoffs in the digital space signal an even worse future for a print industry in sudden senility. In the worst case, without an ecosystem of local and national journalists, democracy is under threat.
For others, this is a comeuppance for an industry feigning total objectivity and straying from the glory days of Cronkitian certainty. The corporatization of TV media is pitching panel shows and explosive false equivalencies as healthy ‘debate’ in cinematic form. The comfort of journalistic transparency has reached a boiling point and is beginning to evaporate.
Wired’s Antonio Garcia Martinez calls these growing pains a return to center:
“We take journalistic objectivity to be as natural and immutable as the stars, but it’s a relatively short-lived artifact of 20th-century America,” Martinez writes. “Until 1900 or so, most newspapers were overtly political, and a name like The Press Democrat meant Democrat with a big D.”
Martinez’s article lays out a quick blueprint of American journalism. In the scheme of our long media history — where, as Martinez points out, fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams worked as publishers alongside revolution — today’s climate shows flashes of previous misgivings. NPR’s “Throughline” podcast heralded Adams’ printed falsehoods as a cornerstone of patriotic conspiracy.
Martinez makes a valiant point: the ignobility of today’s media is no different than its precursors. What’s more, the present threats to journalism are no less inventive (or serious) as they’ve been before.
Brooke Gladstone, co-host of WNYC’s acclaimed radio show On The Media, charted the tumultuous history of American journalism in her graphic novel The Influencing Machine. Here are some choice highlights:
- 1798: President John Adams signs the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams then uses the act to jail voices critical of his image and presidency (especially those criticizing his “hideous hermaphroditic character”).
- 1807: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” said President Thomas Jefferson, just eight years after praising the presses as an instrument of truth and enlightenment. Journalists repeatedly hint at a possible bastard child from Jefferson and one of his slaves.
- 1861–1865: President Abraham Lincoln closes around 300 opposition newspaper during the Civil War.
- 1917: Woodrow Wilson signs The Espionage Act. This effectively barres writing and speaking anything critical of the U.S. government for the duration of World War I.
- 1940: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Smith Act, “making it a criminal offense to advocate ‘overthrowing the government.’” Gladstone notes the broad concept of “overthrowing” was used to arrest anyone espousing ‘criminal’ or socialist ideologies.
- The 1970s: President Richard Nixon sues the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers, claiming the publication of government secrets puts national security at risk. The Supreme Court rules in favor of the Times.
There’s a complicated history here. In its nascence, America’s colonial government helped fund newspapers as part of a national infrastructure. It was believed communication would tie the young country together. Antithetical to this liberty are the American fathers, who criticized the press while using government money to fund their own yellow papers against their opponents. They routinely shuttered publications throughout each century.
Today’s antagonisms are certainly out of the routine, but the ideological attacks are anything but new.
“Everything we hate about media today was present at its creation: its corrupt or craven practitioners, its easy manipulation by the powerful, its capacity for propagating lies, its penchant for amplifying rage,” Gladstone writes.
In fact, the “danger” of accessible information was a major concern around the advent of the television. For years print and radio dominated the opinions and whims of plebe and war-monger alike. But now, consumers could be exposed to a drone of images from any room in their home.
The 1960’s solution? Create a public media.
For nearly 200 years, American journalism was a complex symbol of liberty and manipulation. As technology continued to develop, journalism followed, adapting to the airwaves and, eventually, to the miracle of television. A stream of images was suddenly accessible around the clock, and the potential for influence was never so tempting.
So President Lyndon B. Johnson and the American government made a bold move and invented its own media through sweeping legislation. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created a private corporation designed to show government sponsorship for journalism as a tool of education:
It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit. That is the purpose of this act.
It will give a wider and, I think, stronger voice to educational radio and television by providing new funds for broadcast facilities. It will launch a major study of television’s use in the Nation’s classrooms and its potential use throughout the world. Finally — and most important — it builds a new institution: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
Education. Enlightenment. A profound sense of a world rapidly developing with little time to reflect on how. This is the purpose of public media: to create a steadfast space dedicated to ethical journalism, one not controlled by private enterprises.
It was a voice to cut through the rest.
For today, miracles in communication are our daily routine. Every minute, billions of telegraph messages chatter around the world. They interrupt law enforcement conferences and discussions of morality. Billions of signals rush over the ocean floor and fly above the clouds. Radio and television fill the air with sound. Satellites hurl messages thousands of miles in a matter of seconds.
Today our problem is not making miracles — but managing miracles. We might well ponder a different question: What hath man wrought — and how will man use his inventions?
This sounds of high praise — and yes, it’s a bit naïve — but even President Johnson believed it was a point of bipartisanship, an agora of ideas and culture designed to belong to America’s most acclaimed pillar of freedom: the people.
The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting.
It will get part of its support from our Government. But it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all of our people.
Of course, the typical belief that a government media could guard independence and freedom runs contrary to images of state TV in China, or the former Soviet Union. President Johnson understood the potential weaponization of such an act could be detrimental and equal in its power for misinformation:
At its best, public television would help make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens.
But in weak or even in irresponsible hands, it could generate controversy without understanding; it could mislead as well as teach; it could appeal to passions rather than to reason.
Throughout its history, the United States’ government has praised journalism as an institution vital to the health of democracy (with its fair share of antagonisms from Jefferson to Lincoln to Trump). Yet this line, “it could appeal to passions rather than reason,” too easily resonates throughout the entirety of today’s media. What can be done to fix it? More on that later.
A NEW MEDIA
This newly founded media under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which included National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), was part of a movement 20–30 years in the works. Commercial radio had a strong political influence and occupied the strongest frequencies. Educational stations would be pushed to poorer frequencies, often broadcasting from colleges and religious organizations. There was a fear that corporate influence was contaminating journalism and it was therefore necessary to create a journalism anchored by lofty enlightenment principles.
“When LBJ came on, the idea was that you would have a state-sponsored organization free from marketplace constraints — but also free from state constraints. It was meant to occupy that middle space,” says Dr. Chris Chavez, an associate professor and the director of the journalism doctoral program at the University of Oregon.
Chavez explains that television would become the exclusive focus of the organization, with public radio being clumsily tacked on after the fact (in many instances, National Public Radio was handwritten into contracts and founding documents).
Both would thrive within a completely unique infrastructure.
“At the time I think it was pretty welcome, and it didn’t seem to be a major threat to commercial organizations,” says Chavez. “It was meant to be alternative media, something you wouldn’t find on any other station.”
Chavez’s expertise are on NPR specifically. In their infancy PBS and NPR were unique, playing classical and jazz music while improvising a nascent news identity.
In other words, it was all over the place.
“Over time it’s become more of a professional news organization,” Chavez says, “But that didn’t happen right away.”
Today both PBS and NPR are recognized for their excellence in the field of journalism, winning countless awards for documentary and investigative work while also providing diverse content across the nebulous spectrum of popular content. This is all while being tethered to congress, however tenuous that relationship has become over the past 50 years.
Dr. Chavez illuminates:
“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was set up, and would serve, as a broker — so the federal government would allocate funds to them. It would also have the capacity to fundraise through grants and corporate sponsorships, and then they would serve as a conduit to channel money to these different organizations,” Chavez explains.
“What’s happened is that it’s never really been free from state control, and so every year, or every couple of years, the federal government will make a decision: where does public media fall within this budget?”
The reasons for this are varied. Looking at any bias chart, NPR and PBS will undoubtedly appear left-leaning. The ethical question of whether the government should really be funding any media is routine (as well as the ‘cut budgets, cut the deficit argument). But for anyone who’s been a victim of their local pledge drive, public media has found a way to survive.
“The organization has learned not to rely on that kind of capricious funding and is in an effort to take control of its own destiny,” Chavez says. “It’s relied on other forms of funding, specifically through private donations and individual donations.”
He explains that CPB organizations aren’t noticeably different compared to other giants such as CNN or the New York Times, both in terms of content, coverage and consumer base. So if the content fits, why not the business side? Chavez believes this is the future of public media:
“I see it becoming more like a for-profit corporation.”
There it is: President Johnson’s great experiment in journalism has, in varying degrees, succeeded and failed its original direction. On the one hand, both PBS and NPR became a powerful presence in the media market; on the other, the high-brow idea of “journalism for the people” — especially as an ethical stance from the government — is certainly dilapidated. They’re part of the mainstream pack now.
So is this where things will end? Will the CPB privatize itself, finally severing the tie so loosely tethering them to the government?
Or, could something completely different happen: could congress recognize a crisis in media today and take another action to create stability?
There’s no doubt the idea is scary, especially at a time when the White House is occupied by someone so antagonistic to the “mainstream media” (while fueling his own private network on Fox News). But something fundamental needs to happen: either we abandon the feigned objectivity American journalism boasts, or we find a stable system to support the future of the industry.
Around the world, the latter feels the most proven.
THE EUROPEAN ANSWER?
In Europe, the press spans centuries more than it has in the United States. I’m going to look at Germany, where the first signs of journalism began 400 years ago, with the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien. (Full disclosure: I spent a short time in Germany on a Fulbright journalism program, which is why I’m focusing on it here).
The printed word changed the way information was consumed — suddenly, the ability to read became a widespread need while accessibility to paper solidified the ties between city, state and country.
Future revolutions in technology continued to change the accessibility of printed word. Information became an important national commodity — especially for those seeking to weaponize it. When the Nazis gained control of the young German state, the scope of journalistic power shifted. Through Hitler’s regime, the mainstream press became an enemy of the state. Dissenting journalists were put away, while those who stayed began churning the wheels in the new propaganda machine.
Post-war, Germany was split between what are the origins of modern-day Germany and the German Democratic Republic (or GDR, Soviet-controlled East Germany). Differences in press became widespread. In the GDR, press was controlled by government ideologues who used it to spread propaganda and silence dissidents. In this era, information became power, and one dangerous enough to require intense crackdown.
In West Germany, media hubs cropped up in cities across the Allied zones of influence. The British fostered their own networks, just as the Americans and French began nurturing local media hubs. The byproduct of this division was a healthy and decentralized media landscape. Even today, most papers growing in eastern Germany are corporate and small.
The new German government wanted to avoid the Soviet and Nazi press disasters. When forming their new constitution, it understood how powers like the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution could create a new ecosystem largely resistant to centralized control. So they created a state Presserat, or press council, to create a defined journalistic standard known as the Presscodez.
But German media truly finds its roots in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s landmark model — what’s known as the “dual system” of broadcasting. This creates a cleavage between two major proponents of public media journalism, the corporate (or private) sector, and the Public Service Media (PSM). This binary is the difference between PBS and CNN, one supported through government assistance and the other through corporate muscle.
In Germany, there are eleven PSM networks which broadcast nationally; nine are part of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (the Consortium of public broadcasters in Germany, or ARD). Their one radio PSM is Deutschelandradio. In addition to these, federal legislation created the network known as Deutsche Welle (DW), a media service designed to function as a diplomacy outlet between German news and the rest of the world (DW is serviced in 30 different languages to account for this global audience). It wasn’t until 1984 that commercial radio and television began to be firmly established.
The system for supporting PSMs is similar to the public media system in the United States: each German state, or Bundesländer, mandates broadcast standards and programming as part of their “cultural sovereignty.” They’re funded through the Rundfunkbeitrag, or a monthly licensing fee, which costs German taxpayers close to 18 euros a month (the amount continually varies). Each Bundesländer oversees the regional co-governance of these stations and sees local advocacy groups who lobby for regional diversity and interests.
In terms of public radio, Germany has over 70 PSM stations as part of Deutschlandradio, reaching over 1.5 million daily listeners, and public funds show just how popular the medium is: it’s ranked the most trusted source of news in the country and takes up just less than 50 percent of the 8 billion euros going to public service media.
The system is healthy, the German market is strong (ranking at number 13 on the press freedom index) and the future is bright. But digital news is crippling our American press — so how have issues of digitization plagued their industry?
Social media is, surprisingly, not much of a problem (or so the sources say). While a vast majority of the country has access to the internet, very few find trust in Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter as reliable news sources. While media giants in the country continue to push into the social market, distrust is growing — even for younger news consumers. In relation to Europe’s fight to secure privacy, this doesn’t come as a surprise. I’ve pulled much of this information from the European Journalism Centre, and the organization has a clear distrust of news in social media across the European continent:
“Facebook’s popularity causes another problem that is linked to public opinion and may also add to the low levels of trust in social media. The alarming amount of non-deleted hate speech and fake news on Facebook points to the fact that Facebook is not at all a neutral platform. Instead, it is rather a new player in setting the agenda, which is often influenced by right wing and post-fact ideologies. In fact, journalists demand for transparency of algorithms, because they are convinced of the network’s major role in forming public opinion. The German government hence forces Facebook to delete content and both came to the agreement, that the investigative research network Correctiv would check Facebook pages for these specific aberrations.”
What’s more, the same coverage issues plaguing American media thwart German journalists. A “swarm mentality” creates an inundation of opinions and angles to stories after a major event happens, and a lack of diversity in the industry (especially among executives) is prevalent. It wasn’t until 2005 that a freedom of information law made it through German parliament, a critical tool Americans have had since 1967.
There are even more similarities from the monopoly perspective. Five German companies control a near majority of the country’s media market: Axel Springer, Sudwestdeutsche Medienholding, Funke Mediengruppe, DuMont Shauberg, and Madsack. These “big five” control 42 percent of the market share. In the U.S., 15 billionaires control much of the market.
Of course, I would be naïve not to reference the differences in scale between the two markets. The German media sphere is three times smaller than the American; there are different histories and inequities affecting attitude and access to media.
And to be sure, not everything is perfect in Germany. A compulsory fee for supporting the media has not always been met with enthusiasm. Despite such a strong media market (the largest in Europe) and a dedicated consumer base, several attempts have been made to eradicate the fee over the years. And make no mistake, this is no empty fee. With the monthly license around 17.50 euros, that’s the equivalent of packaging several news subscriptions across the pond. Yet, as more media companies in the U.S. close themselves off, the average cost of quality journalism may yet come to rival this cost.
So could the U.S. shoulder such a burden? Although highly improbable, could congress act as they did in 1964 and give American journalism a breath of public life?
Or even more prescient — what happens if they don’t?
PUBLIC MEDIA IN CRISIS
Let’s take a look at how American public media is serving its consumers currently. In a recent interview for Kara Swisher’s tech podcast “Recode Decode,” Swisher sat down with PBS CEO Paula Kerger to see how the public ecosystem functions and who loses out once funding begins to evaporate.
To clarify, the industry I’m in (public radio) comprises independent media stations existing under the umbrella of “NPR”. While most all stations carry flagship programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, these stations operate independent of each other, oftentimes paired with PBS stations. This is similar to how things operate in Germany, which each Bundesländer dictating its use of media funds (remember, “cultural sovereignty”).
On its surface, public media’s infrastructure is designed to funnel through the over 900 local stations to keep autonomy out of powerful headquartered entities like NPR and PBS, much in the same way the German government distributes their licensing fee to each Bundesländer to be used as they see fit, speaking with local interest groups and creating local content like documentaries and podcasts.
“Our stations are all independent and so they’re locally owned, locally operated, locally governed. I run in essence, a co-op,” Kerger said.
In Kerger’s case, PBS operates 335 stations across the United States. While much of the flagship content such as NewsHour and Frontline come from major media hubs in cities like New York, the total penetration of PBS reaches much, much farther.
“In many of the communities I visit, we’re the last remaining local broadcaster,” Kerger explained. “You know, there are television stations there, but they’re being controlled by someone far away. And a lot of times, even their weather is done by four states away.”
In terms of total PBS funding, 15 percent comes from the federal government to be distributed across the 335 stations. Kerger’s point, however, is that the cuts will reach much deeper than major metro stations, who feel more security than their rural counterparts.
“Cities like Cookeville, Tennessee, or Juno, Alaska, are not going to make it in funding a media organization, a television station, unless there is some federal support,” said Kerger.
For these stations, federal funding can be closer to 50 percent of their budget. Some infrastructure comes from universities, who license many public media stations, but as money for higher education continues to dry out, the problem begins to compound.
Kerger looks specifically at Cookeville, where the only television station based in the community is PBS. She calls it a “cultural archive,” because their programming does a sizable amount of media work in local bluegrass and cultural issues — something no other network is doing for them.
As more outlets push towards competing, monetized systems (aside from Netflix’s new round-eared competitors, more and more journalism is being forced behind paywalls), PBS and NPR continue to be distributed without any fees from the consumer. And to be clear, Kerger isn’t keen on corporatizing content from PBS in the future:
“I want to have stuff that’s available free, right? That’s what ‘public’ means.”
So they’re pivoting, looking to create YouTube programs and disseminating those practices down the station line. Kerger touts the 2 billion streams their YouTube efforts have brought in.
But there are more dire reasons for keeping public media thriving. Public media networks are actually listed as the backup redundancy for the country-wide first-alert system. In the case of a national emergency, digital trafficways become clogged — and, in essence, NPR and PBS act as “one-to-many infrastructure.”
The two do more than general news: they produce original series varying from topical music discussions to award-winning documentaries, all while offering children’s programming. They’ve recently branched into VR experiences through a partnership with NOVA.
“One of the things that does make us different than anyone else is: Netflix isn’t local. Amazon’s not local. I don’t have $15 billion to spend on content. I never will,” explained Kerger.
As a kid, accessible television was a determining factor for me personally. We couldn’t afford big cable packages, so I couldn’t catch many of the marquee cartoons. I grew up with PBS programming — Arthur and Cyber Chase and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. These had an obvious educational benefit, but to this day they’re indelible names (try asking a millennial if they’ve seen any). Although I didn’t understand it at the time, the market penetration for TV and radio programming is a vital role for public broadcasting — especially across geographic and economic lines.
So this is how Kerger’s worst-case scenario thinking goes: by eliminating funding the CPB, it effectively eliminates the necessity for a CPB; from here, money ceases to be divvied up to stations, and the organizational oversight for those organizations ceases to be. The major metro areas will be fine, the hallmark stations will make it — but those in the middle, on the outskirts, deep in the valleys, will most likely shutter.
“It would be an existential issue for probably a third of the stations in our country,” Kerger said.
Look at Eugene, Oregon, for example (my college town). In the media market, there is a Sinclair-owned television station; the longtime local paper, The Register Guard, was purchased by Gatehouse Media last year (a media giant with a past of shuttering local papers).
While an alt-weekly paper continues to publish strong, what’s left is KLCC — public radio. Oregon Public Broadcasting reaches the televisions all the way from Portland. In terms of service area, KLCC covers from the Oregon coast at Florence, to central Oregon at Bend, down to southern Oregon at Medford — what is, in essence, a map of much of Oregon’s densely populated areas. That’s one news network covering 200 miles in any direction (free to access, of course).
In the past, people believed in the power of NPR. In 2003, $235 million found its way to the NPR coffers, courtesy of the late Joan B. Kroc — widow of McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc. At the time, it was the largest monetary gift ever to a cultural institution.
The struggle, however, is still present:
In 2009, member stations derived 6% of their revenue from federal, state and local government funding, 10% of their revenue from CPB grants, and 14% of their revenue from universities.While NPR does not receive any direct federal funding, it does receive a small number of competitive grants from CPB and federal agencies like the Department of Education and the Department of Commerce. This funding amounts to approximately 2% of NPR’s overall revenues.
“2 percent of NPR’s overall revenues.” For scope, in 2018, $445 million went to the CPB. Of that total, nearly 70 percent went to local public media stations as direct grants. Again, those hurt the most by cuts to public media are those whose stations reflect the cultural sovereignty of their consumers. Public media isn’t one hegemonic station; it’s an ecosystem of stations equal in their value, each running a unique operation.
I did tell a small lie. Public media isn’t truly free: in total, American public media costs close to $1.35 a year for taxpayers. If this sounds like hardly anything, that’s because it is — mere percentage points of revenue to a majority of stations.
But now, let’s do a thought experiment. If we were to scale that $1.35 up to 17.50 euros per person (roughly $19.50 per American), that $445 million total jumps to $5.7 billion. I understand — $20 a month is steep for many of those already facing financial difficulties, but even half of that — or slivers more — offers plenty of room to grow.
PRESS FOR THE PEOPLE
Many of us don’t care about public media at all. We believe in its bias, find the content unengaging or unrepresentative of who we are. But unlike most, if not all other news organizations, public media is under your control. The reality is that in the end, if you want a public service, it needs to be funded by the public.
Journalism, as enshrined in the first amendment, is one such service. Our dissatisfaction with journalism can be voiced by us.
As many have worked to emphasize, private media influence on those governing the United States is rampant. The faith backing government networks is nearly non-existent, as is the funding. So what is there to do? Private actors continue to exert more influence on (and from) the presidency. Is this a moment to look back at history and recognize a crisis of confidence in an inundated and internet-driven news world? Or, is a lack of faith in journalism a reflection of a lack in the faith of ourselves?
“The Free Press” is more than a question of prior consent, state ownership and censorship of bold publications. If we’ve learned anything in 2019, it’s that corporate ownership and profit-driven journalism can lead to a sea of information pulling even the strongest of ships underneath.
In Europe, flagships like the BBC and ARD systems show how public funding in media creates public trust. When internet forces throw truth into question, these institutions are a voice to cut through the rest. The public trusts it because it’s public media.
I’m not reserving hope that any act of congress can save journalism as an industry. Public media is not a savior, and just as there is potential for good there is potential for despotism. NPR and PBS have succeeded in their mission, and they’ve also failed. What public media has shown us over 50 years, however, is that it works — it produces phenomenal products and fosters phenomenal journalists. And what’s more, it’s done that while fighting for its life every single year.
So again: what’s the answer? It’s difficult to tell. I’m only partially advocating for us to listen to our radios, donate to our local pledge drives and explore local content outside of our national comfort zones.
What I’m really hoping is that you’ll take a close look and think: what media owns you, and what media do you own? And how much are you willing to fight for it?
If you found this article interesting, you might enjoy another story I wrote on the history of data privacy in Germany and what it means for our collective future. Thanks for reading!