Public Option scenario

The Public Option

What if the gov­ern­ment had to get involved in mak­ing sure peo­ple get the infor­ma­tion they need? Such inter­ven­tion might be con­tem­plated if today’s fun­da­men­tal finan­cial and dig­i­tal realign­ment of pri­vate, com­mer­cial news media makes it more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to obtain suf­fi­cient use­ful infor­ma­tion tomor­row about what is going on around the nation and the world.

Every three years, the Pro­gramme for Inter­na­tional Stu­dent Assess­ment (PISA) con­ducts a sur­vey of 15-year-old stu­dents in indus­tri­al­ized nations in order to eval­u­ate their read­ing, math­e­mat­ics and sci­en­tific lit­er­acy skills on a global scale. Public Option scenarioWhen the PISA sur­vey began in 2000, the United States ranked 15th. In the fol­low­ing years, the U.S. fell fur­ther and fur­ther until, in 2020, it had fallen to the bot­tom of the 65-country survey.

The Amer­i­can pub­lic was out­raged by the inter­na­tional embar­rass­ment. Con­gress­men were bom­barded by phone calls demand­ing edu­ca­tion reform. The House Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee launched an in-depth analy­sis to deter­mine the cause of the drop in PISA performance.

When the results of the study were released, edu­ca­tion experts from across the coun­try were astounded. It wasn’t just schools that had failed the stu­dents; a core prob­lem was the stu­dents’ per­cep­tion of fact. Tan­gi­ble news­pa­pers had essen­tially become an archaic medium for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents while broad­cast news had become heav­ily opinion-based. Gen­er­a­tion Z’s news came pre­dom­i­nantly through social-media-based sto­ries that assem­bled tweets and Face­book sta­tuses into reports of the online buzz about a topic. Cable and online news pro­gram­ming mostly pro­vided “view­point jour­nal­ism” with news anchors and com­men­ta­tors from extreme per­spec­tives adding their own per­spec­tive to every fact and figure.

With lit­tle dis­tinc­tion between hard news report­ing and com­men­tary, U.S. media had effec­tively cre­ated a gray area in which stu­dents strug­gled to dif­fer­en­ti­ate fact from opinion.

The edu­ca­tional sys­tem reacted by empha­siz­ing the teach­ing of media lit­er­acy and dis­sec­tive con­tent analy­sis at ele­men­tary, mid­dle and high school lev­els through­out the coun­try. But edu­ca­tors also spurred the pub­lic to demand bet­ter core news con­tent from the source – the media.

With lit­tle dis­tinc­tion between hard news report­ing and com­men­tary, U.S. media had effec­tively cre­ated a gray area in which stu­dents strug­gled to dif­fer­en­ti­ate fact from opinion.

Unfor­tu­nately, com­mer­cial media responded that they could do lit­tle more than they already were, because of the decay­ing adver­tis­ing busi­ness model and the impe­tus of stock­hold­ers to limit unprof­itable activ­i­ties. Non-profit media lacked suf­fi­cient resources to make a dif­fer­ence. That left the gov­ern­ment to step in. Although Con­gress ini­tially cited the First Amendment’s “free­dom of the press” clause as a rea­son not to inter­vene, the pub­lic out­cry was mas­sive in demand­ing that gov­ern­ment offi­cials cre­ate a news sys­tem that would pro­mote hard news report­ing over view­point jour­nal­ism. In 2021, Con­gress passed an act that expanded the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act (FOIA) to include a man­date for a fed­er­ally funded news source, the Fed­eral Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem (FBS).

The cre­ation of a fed­er­ally funded news ser­vice was not unprece­dented. The Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Act of 1967 estab­lished the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing (CPB) through which National Pub­lic Radio (NPR) and the Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Ser­vice (PBS) were both funded. Though fed­er­ally oper­ated, the fed­eral fund­ing for the CPB was always min­i­mal. In fact, in 2009 only 18.1 per­cent of the CPB’s fund­ing came from fed­eral funds. Pri­vate dona­tions made up the vast major­ity of CPB’s budget.

Sim­i­larly, pri­vate dona­tions have taken on the respon­si­bil­ity of meet­ing the new need for FBS funds. Unlike the CPB, how­ever, fed­eral fund­ing has increased sig­nif­i­cantly since it lev­eled out at around $4 per capita 10 years ago. Rec­og­niz­ing the suc­cess of other nations’ pub­lic broad­cast­ing sys­tems, the U.S. gov­ern­ment even­tu­ally real­ized that the social ben­e­fits of fund­ing a fed­eral broad­cast news source were almost lim­it­less and included increased con­sumer con­fi­dence and renewed pub­lic trust in media and government.

Since the tran­si­tion, pub­licly funded media have gained inde­pen­dence and demo­c­ra­tic func­tion­ing in a vari­ety of ways.

Sim­i­lar to the suc­cess­ful British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (BBC), the FBS oper­ates on a com­pletely trans­par­ent level, offer­ing back­ground, income and expen­di­ture infor­ma­tion on any board mem­ber who con­trols how FBS fund­ing is spent. The gov­ern­ment is also restricted from cen­sor­ing broad­casts prior to air­ing, and pro­gram archives are released to the pub­lic on a daily basis.

Since the tran­si­tion, pub­licly funded media have gained inde­pen­dence and demo­c­ra­tic func­tion­ing in a vari­ety of ways. First, in sev­eral coun­tries, fund­ing is estab­lished for a given time frame, thus, less­en­ing the room for gov­ern­ment to inter­vene and directly link fund­ing to either approve or deny cer­tain pro­gram­ming. Sec­ond, adver­tis­ers no longer con­trol the media. While some opinion-based com­mer­cial news out­lets still do exist, their influ­ence has cer­tainly dimin­ished. With the FBS, cit­i­zens feel like they are more a part of media processes and oper­a­tions because the FBS responds to their inquiries and sug­ges­tions. Since build­ing this rela­tion­ship between pub­lic media and U.S. res­i­dents, pub­lic news out­lets have helped fos­ter cit­i­zen engage­ment, involve­ment and account­abil­ity. Third, neu­tral pub­lic agen­cies and admin­is­tra­tive bod­ies are in place to serve as buffers between broad­cast­ing teams and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. For instance, gov­ern­ment funds for pub­lic news out­lets are man­aged by legal and admin­is­tra­tive char­ters. This ensures that allot­ted money is spent to best accom­mo­date the public’s inter­ests, rather than pri­vate or fed­eral ones. And, while it may be impos­si­ble to com­pletely elim­i­nate par­ti­san influ­ence in jour­nal­ism and news media, the FBS has at least begun to bal­ance out the mar­ket­place of ideas by pro­vid­ing more diverse sets of programming.

The suc­cess of the government’s role in pro­vid­ing news and other need-to-know con­tent to U.S. cit­i­zens has hinged on the fact that it does not rely on an advertising-based busi­ness model. While tra­di­tional media out­lets, such as ABC, CBS and NBC, were pro­vid­ing a nar­row range of pro­gram­ming of sim­i­lar shows in com­pa­ra­ble time slots, the FBS’s pro­gram diver­sity, atten­tion to pub­lic affairs and focus on inter­na­tional news has served to revi­tal­ize and engage today’s stu­dents. And, con­sumer coop­er­a­tion with government-run media has led cit­i­zens to be even more involved in and sat­is­fied with the news. Unlike the days of old, today’s media respond and react to the real-time needs and wants of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. In the FBS, the U.S. has found not just new life for the Fourth Estate but a viable pub­lic option for the Amer­i­can people.

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