We have entered a momentous period in the history of the American press. The invention of new communications technologies—especially the Internet—is transforming the human capacity to speak, perhaps as monumentally as the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. This is facilitating the largest and fastest expansion of global economic growth in human history. Free speech and a free press are essential to a dynamic economy.
At the same time, however, the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core. The proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers. Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future.
Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are undertaking studies of ways to ensure the steep economic decline faced by newspapers and broadcast news does not deprive Americans of the essential information they need as citizens. One idea under consideration is enhanced public funding for journalism.
The idea of public funding for the press stirs deep unease in American culture. To many it seems inconsistent with our strong commitment, embodied in the First Amendment, to having a free press capable of speaking truth to power and to all of us. This press is a kind of public trust, a fourth branch of government. Can it be trusted when the state helps pay for it?
American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support. By the middle of the last century, daily newspapers were becoming natural monopolies in cities and communities across the country. Publishers and editors drew on the revenue to develop highly specialized expertise that enhanced coverage of economics, law, architecture, medicine, science and technology, foreign affairs and many other fields.
Meanwhile, the broadcast news industry was deliberately designed to have private owners operating within an elaborate system of public regulation, including requirements that stations cover public issues and expand the range of voices that could be heard. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld this system in the 1969 Red Lion decision as constitutional, even though it would have been entirely possible to limit government involvement simply to auctioning off the airwaves and letting the market dictate the news. In the 1960s, our network of public broadcasting was launched with direct public grants and a mission to produce high quality journalism free of government propaganda or censorship.
The institutions of the press we have inherited are the result of a mixed system of public and private cooperation. Trusting the market alone to provide all the news coverage we need would mean venturing into the unknown—a risky proposition with a vital public institution hanging in the balance.
Ironically, we already depend to some extent on publicly funded foreign news media for much of our international news—especially through broadcasts of the BBC and BBC World Service on PBS and NPR. Such news comes to us courtesy of British citizens who pay a TV license fee to support the BBC and taxes to support the World Service. The reliable public funding structure, as well as a set of professional norms that protect editorial freedom, has yielded a highly respected and globally powerful journalistic institution.
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