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Mr. President, Help Save the News

BY Megan Tady

It's time to put our public media system under the microscope—not to tear organizations like NPR and PBS down, but to prop them up.

In late July, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather sent murmurs through the journalism world when he called on President Obama to form a White House commission on public media and journalism.

His plea couldn’t be more timely. As news outlets crash and burn and “investigative journalism” becomes a historical relic for the next generation to read about on Wikipedia, Rather said media reform must become a national priority because “a democracy and free people cannot thrive without a fiercely independent press.”

Tens of millions of Americans rely on PBS and National Public Radio for everything from ad-free children’s shows to rush-hour breaking news. Public broadcasting provides some of the country’s most hard-hitting journalism. Newspapers’ accelerating decline has only underscored this fact.

Established to serve the public interest, public broadcasters can and should play a major role in tackling journalism’s crisis. But there’s a problem: Under-funded media like NPR and PBS need a severe upgrade before they can become our anchor and move into the digital age. It’s time to put our public media system under the microscope–not to tear organizations like NPR and PBS down, but to prop them up.

A White House commission could point the way to better public media, and inspire the political will to get there.

Public media’s flaws

Public media produce some of the best reporting and programming on radio and television–and the American public values this quality content. In 2009, for the sixth consecutive year, Americans ranked PBS among their most valued institutions, second only to the military. NPR ranked third, tied with law enforcement.

But despite this impressive public support, lawmakers routinely fail to deliver the money needed to support a thriving public media system. The United States spends just $1.30 per person on public media, compared to (as of 2007) more than $80 per person in England and $100 per person in Denmark and Finland.

This paltry funding forces public broadcasters to perpetually pursue dollars, driving them away from their core mission. Too often our public broadcasters produce non-controversial programming that doesn’t offend corporate underwriters and satisfies elected officials. In other words, cautious and dull shows that lack diversity and are cheap to create.

A new vision and way forward

Sure, donating twenty bucks during NPR’s fundraising drive is helpful. But what we truly need are bold policy solutions that address the systemic problems facing public media. So what kind of vision might a White House commission be able to offer President Obama?

Public media need significant financial support and governance systems that are free of political influence. They should embrace new digital technologies to innovate and increase their reach and impact, and broaden their content to reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.

Finally, public media should expand the definition of public media to include other outlets, such as low-power FM radio, public access TV, independent print publications, viewer-supported satellite TV, and nonprofit Internet-based outlets.

While a White House commission cannot change laws, a public media commission could significantly impact–if not spark–a national discourse on media. If the president were to endorse and appoint such a commission, it wouldn’t be the first of its kind: A 1967 Carnegie Corporation-backed commission on public media led to the Public Broadcasting Act, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

A White House commission wouldn’t mean government involvement in journalism content. Its goal would be to maintain a vibrant marketplace of ideas–a concept firmly rooted in our nation’s history. The government has long created policies that would ensure a diversity of viewpoints and information, like public subsides for newspaper distribution and limits on how much media a single company can own in your neighborhood.

But reforms will have to occur in a number of places, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting itself–the organization that decides how government dollars for public media are spent. And we will need a true firewall that protects journalists and content producers from any government intrusion.

A great way to start would be by disconnecting media funding from the ugly annual dance of congressional appropriations. If we can stop tying funds to the political whims of Congress and the White House (say, by establishing a separate trust fund), we won’t repeat the kind of partisan meddling public broadcasting has endured in recent decades.

The stakes are high

What might a far-sighted commission be worth? Potentially everything.

To fix the massive slate of problems facing our nation today–from healthcare reform to foreign policy to the economy–we need a fiercely independent press that examines pressing issues and holds decision-makers accountable.

What we have now is journalism that pursues eyeballs for advertisers. America deserves better. Let’s hope President Obama agrees.

Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InTheseTimes.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.

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