As politicians in Washington debate defunding public media outlets like NPR and PBS, out of a mix of concern for the deficit and political animosity for the concept, there’s one larger piece of context worth considering. America is the only major democracy in the West to rely almost entirely on commercial media to comprehensively inform its citizens.
Public media here is a small niche, the domain, depending on your preferred stereotype, of urbanites, educated elites and liberal insiders. Out of a population of 300 million people in the U.S., about 8 percent in an average week listen to NPR, and 25 percent catch some PBS. The percentage owning a pledge-drive tote may be too small to measure.
In most of Europe — and for that matter Canada, Australia and Japan — public media represent something entirely different.
“Who is the average BBC watcher?” asked Rodney Benson, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. “Everybody in Britain.”
The experience of Great Britain and other countries — and related research about the quality of their public programming and the knowledge base of their citizens — suggests the U.S. should ramp up support for public broadcasting at exactly the moment when some propose eliminating it all together.
Benson and doctoral student Matthew Powers surveyed public media systems in 14 countries for a Free Press report that documents this. In every Western European democracy they examined, public broadcasting channels attract at least a third of the national TV audience. Public spending per capita on media in all 14 countries ranges from $30 to $134 a year. In the U.S., that figure is less than $4. It goes up to about $9 when individual and corporate donations are included.
In all 14 countries, public media offered higher quality coverage of public affairs, more critical coverage of government and a wider diversity of viewpoints than their commercial counterparts (a pattern that holds for NPR). And these foreign public media stations have the freedom to schedule news programming during prime time, a luxury not afforded to the American viewer who doesn’t get home from work in time to watch the nightly news — at 5:30.
As a result, studies show that the level of knowledge about public affairs in many of these countries is both higher than it is in the U.S. and more equitably spread across education, class, race, ethnicity and gender.
“Whereas there’s a big different in what people know here, when you compare high and low income, high and low education, in some of these countries there’s almost no difference,” Benson said. “The value of having this kind of broad publicly oriented programming available to everyone at an accessible time, and putting a lot of resources behind that to make it available and accessible, is that citizens are better informed in those countries.”
The U.S. has instead long relied almost exclusively on another model — the commercial media system that includes TV networks and for-profit newspapers. During the 1920s and ’30s, the U.S. and other countries debated the future of public media, then mostly limited to radio. Europe went one way. “At that moment,” Benson adds, “we did not go the BBC route.”
“That worked to a certain extent for a long period of time because commercial media had a strong professional commitment to public affairs reporting, investigative reporting, foreign reporting,” Benson said. “That was sort of an unspoken part of the compact for the commercial media system we had.”
That compact in the U.S., though, has frayed along with the economy, as commercial media outlets have shed reporting jobs, investigative budgets and overseas bureaus. The U.S., now more than ever, Benson says, needs a strong public media system to cover news and serve markets — minorities, the poor, whole regions of the country that don’t benefit from WNYC’s pledge drive — the commercial system will not.
“If democracy is to mean anything,” Benson said, “you have to figure out ways to include everybody.”
Currently, the commercial market overproduces some content (entertainment, politically charged commentary) while underproducing others (public affairs reporting, critical investigations). Public media’s role, Benson said, is to address that market failure, a goal other countries have achieved through more imaginative funding schemes and stronger controls to keep public media and politics at arm’s length from each other.
As a start, Benson says the U.S. should decouple public media from the annual federal appropriations debate in Washington. He also points to a Free Press proposal to create a public media trust, similar to the one that manages the BBC.
“The fact that we’re even talking about this is something new in this country,” Benson said. “There’s been this realization that commercial media is not doing the job, and the critique of that has become so widespread, there is this search for solutions. If the market’s not working, the government is an obvious place to look to supplement that or correct that.”