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Should media get public funding?
By now, you’re probably aware of the whole fiasco that had Elon Musk labelling NPR as “state-affiliated media” and later changing it to “government funded media.” NPR wasn’t terribly happy about the whole situation—and had announced earlier today that they would no longer post fresh content to their 52 official Twitter feeds. NPR stated that the label is “inaccurate and misleading” given that the organization is private, nonprofit, and has editorial independence. It receives less than 1% of its budget from federal funding via Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
If you’re interested in digging deeper, you can view their tax filings for 2019, here. Public support is disclosed on page 23 from 2015-2019.
As many have pointed out though, NPR gets an addition 31% of its funding in programming fees from member organizations—local public radio stations that get annual grants from CPB, which they then pay to NPR for programming
Whether NPR has heavy bias or not is irrelevant to this discussion. Many media outlets do.
More central to the whole Twitter debate is what constitutes “state-affiliated media” or “government funded media”? Is it anything that gets above 0% funding? 20%? Or some other arbitrary number that we deem significant enough to have an impact on coverage?
Originally, this post was meant to be more focused on NPR and assessing who’s in the right here. But I think a far more interesting and important conversation is about establishing whether publicly funded media has a role to play in general.
As usual, I find a conclusion on this topic to be a bit tricky to draw as I see both the virtues and pitfalls.
I suspect many readers of this Substack are more likely to jump to the pitfalls first, so let’s address them:
Should their taxes be used to fund something that could potentially be the mouthpiece of the government that they are most reliant on funds from? For example, in Canada, in 2020-2021, the CBC received about $1.4 billion from the Canadian government, accounting for about 70% of its funding. This is under the Liberal government. Meanwhile, the Conservative government has a website campaigning to Defund the CBC. Even if one is going to argue that the journalists employed by the CBC are trying to do their reporting objectively in good faith, does it not pose sufficient doubt that they might be influenced by the fact that a rival government wants to defund the very organization they work for?
When a media outlet is publicly funded—even if the government doesn’t directly interfere in the editorial process as they might with “state-affiliate media”—there is always a risk that they’ll be able to have unspoken influence on the content being produced, pressuring reporters and editors to toe the government line and bias reporting in favor of the establishment.
Media outlets that receive public funds are also less competitive, which may have a negative effect on the quality of content since they don’t have to stand out in the marketplace of ideas the way others do. It also gives them an unfair advantage, which may hurt others in the marketplace. Publicly-funded media outlets also potentially have less pressure to respond to audience feedback since they aren’t as afraid of losing readers nor advertisers.
However, on the flip side, it also means that there is less pressure to create content where monetization is the primary driver (eg. clickbait) and there is a greater opportunity to produce quality content that’s driven by higher standards, and has less pressure from advertisers (eg. Big Pharma). There’s also certain kinds of investigative journalism publicly funded media outlets can do without fear of reprisal or loss of revenue. Of course, just because they can, doesn’t mean that they do.
Funding media is also a matter of priorities. Some taxpayers simply think that there’s enough private players to cover the needs of the public and that there are more pressing issues that require this funding like, say, healthcare, education, infrastructure, etc. There’s no need to duplicate efforts and waste resources needed elsewhere.
But there are some needs that aren’t well covered by private media entities and this is where public funding tends to be most useful.
It’s tough to build a commercially successful media empire in a small town—yet those stories are important to that community so that they are informed about issues that affect them directly. Those local stories are often ignored by commercial outlets.
Publicly funded media has a mandate to serve the public interest rather than chasing click or advertising dollars. As such, it can provide more in-depth coverage of important issues, provide educational programming that doesn’t necessarily have to top the ratings charts, and can inform rather than be the infotainment that dominates so much of today’s media landscape.
Perhaps instead of eliminating public funding for media altogether, we should be thinking instead about how we can ensure that there is a separation between whichever political party happens to be in power and how these budgets are controlled and allocated, so that there is true independence and no undue influence. So that regardless of who happens to be in charge, any decisions pertaining to public funding of media have no potential consequences on the content.
What are your thoughts? Should media receive public funding? Why? If so, any ideas for models for how to separate “church from state”? Please leave a comment below.
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