The Public Option and American Journalism

Len Downie and Michael Schudson’s report “Reconstructing American Journalism” was released early this week and has added much to an ongoing discussion around the future of the news in general, and reporting in particular.

It contains an impressive survey of where the profession stands today, makes sure to underline that it is not all doom and gloom, and ends on a somber tone by underlining that serious, concerted action is needed, by state, market, and civil society actors, if “accountability journalism” as we have come to know it in the 20th century is to survive on a large scale in the United States.

The report offers six recommendations, and number five, quoted below, has caused quite a ruckus:

“A national Fund for Local News should be created with money the Federal Communications Commission now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers and which would be administered in open competition through state Local News Fund Councils.”

This suggestion made the New York Times’ David Carr’s mind “reel” in his coverage of the report, Jeff Jarvis calls the idea “desperate” on BuzzMachine, and Michelle McLellan, writing in the Knight Digital Media Center newsletter, finds it “troubling”. Each offer somewhat different nuances of criticism all based on the same basic premise: public subsidies fundamentally undermines journalistic independence.

That can certainly be true, but to hold it to be true always and in all cases is a dangerous misconception that rests on a staggering ignorance when it comes to the history of journalism in the United States and the realities of journalism here and elsewhere.

1) Journalism has, as Paul Starr has shown, always been directly and indirectly supported by the Federal Government and many other public entities.

2) Much journalism today is at the receiving end of direct public support (Committee on Public Broadcasting, NPR), but hardly reduced to slavish dependency by it.

3) Many journalists around the world that we laud for their independent and critical scrutiny of people in power (whether public office holders, private businessmen, or union presidents) are working for institutions that are funded largely through public support–most notably of course the BBC.

To suggest that these historical and contemporary examples of accountability journalism are fundamentally undermined by their partial reliance funding sources is simply wrong, and an insult to the professionals who work there.

Newsgathering professional journalists have and will always have a complicated and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with those who pay their bills (whether these are advertisers channeling consumers’ money or public officials channeling citizens’ tax dollars). All-out dependence on any one source of funding (one large advertiser, complete government funding) will almost always lead to problematic situations. As James Curran and others have repeatedly argued, a mix of different sources of support is preferable to reliance on any single one.

To suggest that public subsidies have no role in saving American journalism from the serious short-term crisis facing it today (and in helping it prepare for medium- and long-term challenges) is a dangerous knee-jerk reaction that we will hopefully only see from a few people who are in a position where they can afford to gamble with their profession’s future.

Journalists and others working in the trenches will hopefully seize on the arguments offered in the report and use this critical moment to ally with outside partners to build a better journalism for tomorrow. Whether we get it is a political question as much as one of business models or professionalism, and I hope that the libertarians and free-market ideologues won’t dominate the discussion.

(full disclosure: Michael Schudson is the chair of my dissertation committee)


2 responses to “The Public Option and American Journalism

  1. “dangerous misconception that rests on a staggering ignorance”?

    Oh, come now.

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