Public Media at 50: Looking to the Future

A white paper series

Fifty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its charge was to conceive, develop and expand noncommercial broadcasting and it led to the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

This anniversary is a fine moment to recall and commemorate values imbued in the Public Broadcasting Act, and the vital contributions to our national discourse and culture that followed. It’s also a useful prompt to look critically at the present and imagine a better future.

When public broadcasting started in the United States, there were only three networks, stringing together stations with only local or regional reach. Original public funding was significant and, in the early years, sponsorship to enhance corporate image became a staple of public funding. By the end of the 20th Century, additional networks and cable provided a proliferation of options to viewers and advertisers that not only challenged the notion that quality tv had to be provided with public subsidy, but also changed the business model of public broadcasting.

None of that significant change, however, rivals the radically different media landscape we live in now. We are still early in the internet age, but it’s a universe of information with seemingly limitless opportunity for democratic engagement and dictatorial control. Little is certain except accelerating change, and this: how public broadcasting is produced and consumed, and who determines what is authoritative, accurate and factual are different from its origins and beg for review.

In that spirit, we decided to recognize this anniversary by commissioning a series of white papers by thinkers across the spectrum. We asked each author the same questions:

  • Do we still need a public media? If so, why?
  • How should public media be destroyed, disrupted or restructured to inform community today?

We asked such stark questions because we wanted to move beyond celebration to critical inquiry. We wanted to challenge ourselves to adopt an open perspective about what values endure, what is worth preserving and how to do so in a time of such rapid technological and attitudinal change.

What we heard surprised and delighted us, in its introspection and in its depth.

Sue Gardner, former Wikimedia Foundation head and senior leader for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, charts the multidecade, worldwide decline in funding for public media, and argues that it’s time for reinvestment for a new, internet age public media. That future, she suggests, will not resemble the general news programming of the past, but will include a recommitment to public service in a way fit for the present and the future. Read

In a similar vein, Blair Levin of the Brookings Institution, who led the creation of the National Broadband Plan at the Federal Communications Commission, says it’s time for the public media system to become a digital “community information commons.” This vision would call for not only better digitizing what we think of as public media content, but also services that put digital data to use for community. Read

Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a longtime journalist, advocates in favor of defunding public media. He argues that public media’s public affairs content violates the democratic value that taxpayers should not support a point of view, and that public media has shown that it can survive – and perhaps even prosper – without government support. Read.

Melody Kramer, a media innovator and commentator (and former digital strategist for NPR), and Betsy O’Donovan, executive director of The Daily Tar Heel, exhorts the public media system to go back to basics, refocusing on delivering the educational content that spawned the idea of American public media in the first instance. Read.

Timothy Carney, commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also suggests that the public media system does not suffer from a market failure that would justify government support – with a key exception. He argues that public media should instead move to fill the gap left by the implosion of local news. His concept: replace the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with a new Civic Accountability Corporation, which would deploy federal funds to support a new approach to local news. Read.

A consonant theme comes from Adam Ragusea, who is an active public radio reporter and commentator, who says we should consider dismantling an expensive broadcast operation and instead redirect public radio’s capital to streamlined, digital-first local news outlets. Read.

The values that sparked the creation of the public media system, that sought to ensure an informed and engaged community in this democratic republic, are noble. But if values are to endure, they must be tested in each new age and against new competing values in society and changing technology. That testing should be done with an open mind about how they can best be supported and preserved. The views in these essays are not necessarily ours, but they are the kind of views that we should consider, confront and explore.

Let the discussion begin. We look forward to your thoughts and insights.

Alberto Ibargüen and Sam Gill