Public-supported news, or as the news industry would have us believe – state run propaganda machines, is a hotly contested sore point in the US. Of course not all countries look at this way as evidenced by the BBC in England or the CBC in Canada. Even within the US there is the often looked down upon NPR which as an organization has to continually defend itself from attacks not just from their peers in the industry but also the government.
The argument used against these types of publicly-supported news agencies is that no matter how hard they try they will always have to kowtow to the government of the day. You will also hear the argument that publicly-supported news agencies don’t have to compete on the same ground that other non-public (big business) run news businesses and that gives them an unfair advantage.
If this is the case then one has to wonder why the BBC of England has been able to continually grow in this new media environment while big business run news agencies are floundering. Not only is the BBC growing but it is seeing its ad revenues triple in the last year an are expecting to double in the next year. In fact business is so good because of foreign visitors to their news site that they will be launching a US site at BBC.com to meet the need.
Even the US’s own NPR is continually striving forward always finding ways to use new media and new technologies to provide a better service while at the same time you have the big names in the news industry talking paywalls and subscriptions.
Given all this it was interesting to read an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and First Amendment scholar, where he questions this idea that publicly-supported news agencies are inherently biased and dangerous to journalism.
Interestingly, Bollinger contends that our largest threat to journalism isn’t from government abuse but the corporate sector. “To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment,” he argues. “This reinforces the point that all media systems, whether advertiser-based or governmental, come with potential editorial risks.”
He concludes, “In today’s rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, other countries are developing a strong media presence. In addition to the BBC, there is China’s CCTV and Xinhua news, as well as Qatar’s Al Jazeera. [Our] system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters.”
It is an interesting argument and one that I believe have a lot of merit. After all one just has to look at the polarization that is happening in the United States and how news organizations align themselves, whether they admit it or not, with those different sides. News has become more and more about the rating, about the mega-dollar advertising deals that sponsor many of these “news” shows that feed into this polarization.
I also find it very interesting to watch the rise, and profitability, of publicly-supported news agencies like the NPR, BBC and other similar “state” news organizations while at the same time the name brand news businesses we grew up with are struggling.
I have never believed that traditional media at its heart was in any danger of vanishing into the sunset. Rather I totally expect it to morph, to grow, to learn from new media, even to blend with it and in the end we will have a stronger and more ethical provider of the news.
The BBC could very well be that model.