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There Is A Policy Solution To The Problem Of American Journalism

Above Photo: WDIV Local R News Remote Van. Dwight Burdette at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons.

If we can’t figure out a way to pay local reporters then, as a country, we’re only left with that many more blind spots to where the bull is happening. You hear about all these newsrooms getting cuts. That’s every article that Tamara has been sending me the last two months. It’s just the newsroom is getting cut. We’re cutting people. We’re cutting budgets. But you never hear about the multimillion dollar executives reducing their salaries within these organizations. Now, how do we fix this? I don’t know. I’m a comedian.

Roy Wood, Jr. 2023 White House Correspondents Dinner, April 29, 2023

Like many other journalists, past and present, I laughed and nodded at Roy Woods Jr.’s jokes at the 2023 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But, as Mr. Woods and President Joe Biden made clear, the challenge facing American journalists is no joke. And, no, we should not expect comedians to propose solutions to our problems, but we should expect the President and his staff to propose solutions to the serious problems of democratic deliberation in America. We have heard none.

No, banning TikTok is not even close. As important as it is to get the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich out of Russia, that will not come anywhere near to solving the problem.  The Dominion lawsuit against Murdoch’s Fox “News”, the lawsuit against Alex Jones, the firing of Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon—none of this, as satisfying as it may seem in the moment, will solve the problem Woods identified.  And he put his finger on what many media scholars have argued for years is the core challenge facing American journalism: the loss of local reporting. Many of us think this is the core challenge facing American democracy.

As of 2020, half of all counties in America had only one newspaper, and that was likely a weekly with limited reporting, while 200 counties had no newspaper at all.  Local news deserts create space for misinformation, corruption and partisan polarization. Local newspaper reporters are a vital part of what media scholars call the local media ecology.  They support the local radio, local television, local cable and even local social media with the hard reporting needed to keep the local community informed. The problem is not the result of market failure or technological disruption. The problem is policy failure. The White House’s silence speaks volumes about the chances that this current administration will even propose a solution.  Yet, hints of it were present at the laugh-in presided by Roy Woods: Commercial media won’t like this but…Public Broadcasting. No, that’s not a joke.

There are more than 1,500 local public television and radio stations across America, in rural and urban communities, in red states and blue states. Unfortunately, very few of them have the resources to hire the staff needed to stay on top of the towns and counties they are licensed to serve.  Public broadcasting can fill the giant news vacuum in America if the Corporation of Public Broadcasting was properly funded and required to cover local news. This is not a new idea.

There is no good reason every small town, county and state house cannot have a local public broadcaster writing, reporting and investigating, and getting the voice of local workers, families, business leaders, church leaders and school officials on the air, on their website, on the local public television station and local cable channel every day.

It is no secret that the more a country funds its public media, the healthier its democracy.  A monumental 2021 study by the European Broadcasting Union shows a strong correlation between public funding and strong democracy. The more well-funded public service media are in a nation, the more citizens trust their government, and the less inclined its citizens are to think “strong man” authoritarian leadership is a good way of governing.

As Tim Neff and Victor Pickard have written, the U.S. is badly outspent in comparison to other democracies when it comes to protecting a public service media that might protect democratic deliberation.  Germany spends $142.42 per person on its public media, Norway spends $110.73, the U.K. spends $81.30,  Japan spends $53.15, Canada spends $26.51, and the United States — only $3.16 per person, per year.

The Educational Testing Service reported over a decade ago that civic knowledge in the U.S. is “dismal” and at a crisis point. A 2022 report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania shows civic literacy in America declining; less than half of U.S. adults (47%) could name all three branches of government. Imagine a public media service in the U.S. devoted to improving local civic knowledge.

It is not that the wealthiest nation on earth cannot afford it. And yet, U.S. taxpayer money is being spent on other things, such as the ever-increasing defense budget. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Norway spends $1,509.60 per person on the military, while the U.S. spends $2,405.00 per person per year.

If Britain, Norway, Germany, Canada, Japan and most other democracies can have a robust fully-functioning public service media, why is this impossible in the U.S.?

The fault is not in the market or new technology or the stars, it is a policy choice.  How do we justify spending more on bombs per person than other countries while spending less on public service media?  Does anyone still think our democracy is well served by profit-seeking, advertising-driven commercial media?

Please President Biden, if you really care about democracy and the failing state of American journalism, don’t laugh, and don’t grumble about the sorry state of American media.  Put forward a plan to reform and fully fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and get local journalists back to work covering America. Think of it as infrastructure for our democracy.

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