We must act to save modern media — or risk our democracy.

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Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

Something is wrong. Mass media and social media are increasingly polarized, and the problem of fake news is becoming worse. Our elections were disrupted in 2016 by a foreign adversary using social media misinformation tools and today the facts of a debate are different depending on who you talk to, what media they listen to, and what party they’re in.

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

- Thomas Jefferson

As I watch the beginning of the impeachment trial, I’m struck once again by how polarized we are. Our nation used to have a common set of facts that were the basis for debate, back when the whole country tuned in to see Huntley and Brinkley, or Walter Cronkite’s nightly broadcast. We were better for it.

Certainly, there have always been differences and disagreements. After all, the United States has fought a civil war once and been deeply divided over racial, economic and political lines before. However our politics today are more polarized than at any point since the Civil War — and our media is a huge part of the problem.

If I go to Fox News or Breitbart, the coverage I see of the impeachment trial is completely different from what’s on CNN, or for that matter PBS.

There are a variety of reasons for this which I’ll get into, but it comes down to this: the business side of media is often more concerned with profit than the facts. Individual journalists and some organizations care, but cable news is now entertainment and much of online media is more concerned with finding controversial topics to drive clicks and ad revenue than they are with adherence to accuracy.

Regardless of your viewpoint on the Trump impeachment trial or any other issue, it’s clear that the way the trial is being covered is vastly different depending on the source. This is true of nearly every topic, from defense spending to the Green New Deal.

Social media is just as polarized if not more so. With the Pew Research Center determining that 55% of Americans now get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes”, it is also just as important to address.

We need to act. We all have a responsibility — private citizens, corporations, and the government itself, to maintain the fabric of our democracy. With that in mind, I see three clear needs:

  1. Fact-based national news & political coverage
  2. More local reporting and investigative journalism
  3. Improved digital media sources

Before outlining how we can achieve this, we need to talk about how this happened.

How did we get here?

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a series of recommendations called the Fairness Doctrine for how the government should regulate broadcast licensees for the public interest. With a limited number of television and radio frequencies available, the rationale was that this important means of distributing information must be used in the public interest to ensure that citizens were exposed to a variety of viewpoints on issues of public import.

The death of the Fairness Doctrine

The Congressional Research Service explains that the doctrine “consisted of two basic requirements” for all television and radio broadcast licensees:

(1) that every licensee devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance; and

(2) that in doing so, [the broadcaster must be] fair — that is, [the broadcaster] must affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues presented.

However, the rise of cable and satellite television and radio channels such as CNN and Fox News, and later the internet has completely altered how we, the American public, get our information. Today, we have the opposite problem — instead of limited sources, people have access to whatever “news” and information fits their viewpoint, targeted to them by advertisers eager for their eyeballs.

More options for news also means more competition. In response, many publishers air political content that appeals to specific audiences.

People point to the demise of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987 under the Reagan administration as the beginning of our current media crisis, however that isn’t the whole story. While Reagan’s FCC did abolish the Fairness doctrine and Reagan did veto a bill intended to preemptively codify the Fairness Doctrine, the fact is that cable news was not covered under the Fairness Doctrine, only broadcast licensees.

Therefore it’s likely that cable networks and their rush to one-sided, politics as entertainment reporting would have existed in their current form with or without the demise of the Fairness Doctrine. That said, it certainly hasn’t helped that major broadcasters themselves are no longer held to these common standards for the public good. Conservative talk radio rose quickly under these new rules.

Yet these are far from the only reasons that our society and media have polarized. The wild west of the internet has only made matters worse.

What’s wrong with the internet?

The theory from the outset for those creating the internet was that unlimited knowledge and information would make the world better. While the internet has transformed society and industry as we know it, often for the better, the externalities of much of that change have proven terrible. Whether it’s linking internet addiction to increased depression or the rise of fake news and the impact it has had on elections across the world.

I’m not going to rehash the litany of articles decrying the impact of the internet on society. At this point, we all get it — the internet is great at some things (providing access to information, creating innovation) and really terrible at others (fairness, weeding out false information, privacy). We need to address the rules by which it is governed and talk about how we deal with big tech, nevertheless that could be a whole other article.

That said, I think it’s important to understand some of the basics, particularly about the impact of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, often called “the internet’s first amendment”. Section 230 says that internet service operators are not liable for the words of third parties who use their services.

This means that Facebook’s decision to not fact check political ads is completely legal. Task too hard but still want to rake in all of those sweet, sweet advertising dollars? No problem!

The bottom line is that we can’t count on corporations to consistently act for the public good — they’re beholden to shareholders and bent on maximizing profit, not on informing.

All of this free access to information, and the massive increase in rabidly biased reporting catering to specific demographics from sites like Breitbart had a major consequence: we’re killing print media and local reporting with it.

The death of newspapers

In the early 2000s, newspapers made the decision to put much of their reporting free online and try to encourage subscribers to their print editions and justify the online expenses through ad revenue.

This backfired, to say the least. Technological disruption is driving the disappearance of local newspapers across the United States and with them the reporters who held local elected officials, companies, and police departments accountable. At least 7,800 people were laid off in media during 2019 as the cuts continue to snowball. As early as 2015, a PEW study found that 21 US states now send zero local journalists to Washington DC. That means 21 states now have members of congress without dedicated local reporting tracking what they’re doing.

This is another major problem. Local reporting has always played a crucial role in holding the powerful accountable and even if we manage to fix our national media landscape, we need investigative journalism at a local level.

What can we do to change this?

Fixing the problem

To address our country's biggest challenges we need a common set of facts to work from and we need local reporting to hold the powerful accountable. We need a massive investment in public, unbiased media.

If you accept, as I believe the vast majority of us do, that an accurate set of facts and good, non-biased reporting is vital to our political discourse and an underpinning of a healthy democracy, then I believe you’ll see why the government needs to act.

We can’t count on corporations to pick up the slack — they’re usually more interested in their profits. As individuals, we can band together and make change through organizations but these efforts are always best supported by the resources of our government.

Investment in non-biased, fact-based public media

I’ll admit, I still watch CNN sometimes.

However the differences between cable news — beholden to no standard but their own and focused on a profit motive instead of the public good — and non-biased, fact-based public media is clear.

You can see that difference in the 2020 Democratic primary debates. In the CNN hosted January debate, moderators seemed more interested in scandal and soundbites than substance. Take this question from Abby Phillips:

“CNN reported yesterday — and Senator Sanders, Senator Warren confirmed in a statement — that, in 2018, you told her you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?”

CNN wasn’t asking: did you say that? They asked why did you say that. Then they proceeded to analyze and talk to death the brief, post-debate, annoyed conversation between Senators Warren and Sanders. Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone nailed the description of this kind of debate questioning: the network was intent on creating conflict to juice their ratings. Compare and contrast this to the kind of questions candidates got at the PBS debate in December, and you’ll see a clear difference.

This isn’t to say that major corporate media is all bad — they do some essential reporting and investigative journalism. However, unlike many other countries, the United States has always had a far larger commercial media instead of robust public media. This has sometimes had benefits when it comes to accountability, however, with media fragmentation and rapid technology disruption from the internet, this infrastructure is under attack.

It’s past time for us to invest in public media.

Why?

The case for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the CPB provides the seed funding for PBS, NPR, and other important public media) is well known. Informed citizens make smarter decisions, leading to an improved country. Media helps hold the powerful accountable and provides crucial learning opportunities for children and adults alike.

Since PBS’s acclaimed Frontline program started in 1983 it has won every major award in broadcast journalism including 20 Peabodys and 82 Emmys. NPR, PBS and other public media provide excellent journalism, on par with many of their better-funded corporate counterparts.

Yet despite the success of public broadcasting and public journalism, the institution has repeatedly come under attack whether in the recent Trump budgets or in 1969 when Mr. Rogers famously came to congress to testify in support of CPB funding.

Budget cuts are the exact opposite of what we should be doing with public media — we should be investing more.

How much?

Hopefully, smarter minds than I are going to figure out what the right number is, but an additional $2 billion sounds completely reasonable to me. This would be just about 0.042% of the proposed federal budget for 2020 ($4.746 trillion).

I’d hope we could invest at least that much in something as essential as making our democracy work.

How would it be spent?

As I’ve outlined, there are a couple of key areas where we are having major problems. Local investigative reporting is disappearing, national reporting is more biased, and social media is drowning everything out. Therefore, we should make this investment in three key areas:

  1. Non-biased national news & political coverage: We need to combat fake news and work to get the country back to a common set of facts. That means increased funding for the award-winning work of PBS and others at a national political level. If our democracy is going to continue to function, we need more of this kind of coverage and less yellow journalism.
  2. Nationwide grants for local reporting: With local journalists laid off across the country, one of our essential checks on the powerful is removed. This needs to change and with additional funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the CPB is the organization that distributes all public media funding in the United States) secured, we need to launch a grant program to fund investigative journalism across the country. This program would be built by journalists and designed to expand top-notch reporting across the country.
  3. Massive investment in digital media: Until Congress and technology companies can figure out how to effectively regulate the internet in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation while also enabling a healthy civic discourse, we need to play the game. That means digital media effectiveness across our public media resources needs to improve — to combat the oversimplified, selective, biased and event fake news that people are seeing on their timelines. Let’s give public media the resources to make top-notch digital content that is easy to share, and help combat this problem.

Besides the ways this could positively impact our public discourse, educational programming, and democracy — this investment in public media would also be a fantastic deal. Funds are distributed based on a statutory formula laid out in the Public Broadcasting Act which established the CPB. 95% of CPB’s appropriated money goes to things like content development, community services, and other local station needs. A mere 5% is used for administrative costs, an exceptionally low number for any nonprofit. 70% of all of the funding is distributed in the form of Community Service Grants (CSGs) which go directly to local public television and radio stations to serve local needs.

Then, they turn around and use that seed money to raise even more money for public media. Major investment by the public could drive a renaissance in our nation’s media infrastructure.

How would we pay for it?

One example we can look to is the success of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC is primarily funded by an annual television license fee charged to households, companies, or organizations that use any type of equipment to receive or record live television. This same license fee applies to those who use the BBC’s on-demand services.

Such a fee could work in the United States — with an estimated 120,600,000 households in the United States owning at least one television as of 2020 (not to mention businesses and other organizations), to achieve my back-of-the-envelope estimate of two billion in funding per year would require just a $16.59 per year television licensing fee(120,600,000 x $16.59 = $2,000,754,000). In the UK, that annual cost has been £154.50 ($195) for a color license and £52 ($65) for a black and white license since April of 2019. At less than $20, the cost of such a license for households in the United States would be minimal, with the potential benefits enormous, from improved and expanded reporting to better educational programming for children.

What can we do as individuals?

As individuals, we can support good local media and investigative reporting. We can talk to our elected officials about how important the Corporation For Public Broadcasting and the work it supports — like NPR and PBS — is to you and your family. And you can share your stories about how public media has impacted your life using the hashtag #InvestInPBS to bring attention to the issue.

If done right, investing in our public media infrastructure could have wide-reaching effects, positively affecting almost every aspect of our civic life.

It’s time we stopped letting others control our democracy. It’s time to invest in public media.

#InvestInPBS — click here to tweet

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Political strategist and green tech entrepreneur — you can read more of my writing at https://www.conorbronsdon.com.

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