Can public funding save objective reporting?
A compelling case exists that for many newspapers to survive, they’ll require nonprofit status — and possibly public funding. A related question is where TV and radio journalism might fit into that equation.
Watching newspapers die in alarming numbers, respected journalists and academics are rallying to the cause of “saving” print. “Nonprofit” has become a buzzword, buttressed in part by the recent Pulitzer Prize awarded to ProPublica. Others have gone farther by advocating public support, as U. of Illinois professor Robert McChesney and the Nation correspondent John Nichols do in their new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism.”
During a recent forum at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, McChesney — who with Nichols co-founded media reform org Free Press — stated there is no future for journalism without “large, significant and enlightened public subsidies. … We’re going to have to come up with money to create a free press, or it won’t exist.”
As unlikely as it sounds, there’s reason to wonder, too, if financing schemes might be necessary to promote hard news in television.
Clearly, a “let the marketplace decide” approach isn’t yielding anything close to the level of journalism that purists and critics advocate. Instead, too much TV operates in a zone where TMZ increasingly sets the agenda, where the prevailing mind-set often seems to be, “There was a nuclear summit, but first, the latest on Tiger Woods and Kate Gosselin. … ”
Although TV’s financial situation isn’t as ostentatiously dire as print’s, from a qualitative standpoint, television is even worse off. Cash-strapped stations have slashed news budgets, and networks are scaling back on expensive international coverage and bureaus.
A sizable majority of media execs say news is headed in the wrong direction in the latest Pew Research Center survey. Speaking to the BBC, Ted Koppel labeled the current scenario “a disaster,” citing the corrosive influence of “an age of entitlement,” where viewers “want to listen to news that comes from those who already sympathize with our particular point of view. We don’t want the facts any more.”
Bastions of serious news are shrinking, and most of the best exist outside the ad-supported realm. National Public Radio bears little resemblance to the coarseness of commercial radio, just as PBS’ “Frontline” and “The Newshour” have few peers in broadcast news. Notably, the centerpiece of serious documentaries is a pay channel, HBO.
Beyond their nightly newscasts, the major networks are increasingly dominated by fluff, celebrity and scandal on their ascendant morning shows and crime-saturated newsmagazines. Fox News Channel and MSNBC rely on studio-bound talk formats that call for minimal reporting, while CNN — due in part to its own incompetence — continues to flounder despite a wider web of resources.
In many respects, cable resembles the paper-thin journalism of local news, minus weather and sports scores. As Nichols noted, during dozens of book-related events around the U.S., doubtless over-populated by egghead academic types, “not one person” claimed to be satisfied with their local coverage.
Although it would seem that public support would be a political nonstarter, Nichols and McChesney maintain that some lawmakers recognize the fundamental threat to democracy (with a small “d”) as journalism withers. The issue of financing also arose at UC Berkeley’s annual Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting, where discussion included viable models for in-depth journalism in the U.S. and abroad.
Deep cuts to newspapers already have resulted in questionable solutions to staffing shortages. As the New York Times reported, Gannett’s New Jersey papers now carry New Jersey Devils hockey coverage from a reporter employed by the team.
According to McChesney, the evaporation of classified advertising and emergence of the Web merely exposed “the myth that journalism was naturally a commercial enterprise.” What’s clear, he said, is that in the current climate, “There isn’t sufficient money to give us the journalism we need,” estimating an 11-figure pricetag — $20 billion to $35 billion — to solve the problem, which he insists is reasonable given journalism’s importance to a free and informed society.
Based on the political winds and popularity of media-bashing in those circles, it’s hard to envision government liberating billions to support and sustain a vibrant press.
Still, any serious debate about salvaging journalism must consider the role of television, which for most people remains the most pervasive source of news. Because while newspapers are poor, in its own way, TV is downright impoverished.