Could Congress save journalism?

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THE PROBLEM

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.

  • 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.
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(From Brooke Gladstone’s “The Influencing Machine”)

MANAGING MIRACLES

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.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the “Public Broadcasting Act” (Photo by Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Library)

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.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

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).

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b(Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Paula Kerger is the president and CEO of PBS. (Penn State/Flickr)

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.

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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