Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The Case for Spending More on Public Broadcasting

Before political gamesmanship erases some of our most trusted sources of news and information, we should take a step back and take a serious look at the positive role that public media play around the world.

Rodney Benson

 by OtherWords

Once again, America's public broadcasters face the real possibility that their federal funding will vanish. This time, opponents are using the results of a dubious sting operation and the federal deficit as rationales for scrapping spending. But during an economic crisis, we need more reporting, more coverage, and more accountability, not less.

Slashing funding for All Things Considered and Sesame Street won't fix the deficiencies in TV and radio programming, and we shouldn't trim the deficit at the expense of an informed citizenry. Instead, we should champion a truly independent media system that's free to tell stories that aren't commercially viable and serve people advertisers aren't interested in.

Is that really possible? Can the government foster a robust public media system and keep it independent and unbiased? Absolutely. And before political gamesmanship erases some of our most trusted sources of news and information, we should take a step back and take a serious look at the positive role public media plays around the world.

Study after study affirms public media's crucial role in informing citizens. In countries with strong public media, public knowledge about government and international affairs is substantially higher than in countries dominated by commercial media. This holds true across demographic groups despite differences in education, income, and race or ethnicity. Greater public funding, insulated from short-term political whims, also counters any tendencies toward liberal or conservative bias by making the media more independent of political patronage and commercial pressure.

Do public media work perfectly? Of course not. They have blind spots, as do commercial media. What's clear is that the Internet and commercial media, increasingly oriented toward niche audiences, can't replace public media in informing the entire citizenry. At a time when many commercial media are cutting back on the kind of journalism that holds public officials accountable, public media across the world continue to make substantial investments in investigative reporting.

But what would it take to foster robust public media in the United States?

First, we must increase funding instead of slashing it. Even slight increases have an impact on the quality of journalism and programming. In a recent study of public media around the world, Matthew Powers and I examined 14 other leading democracies--Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK--and found that per capita public media spending in those countries ranges from $30 to more than $130. The United States spends a pittance, less than $1.50 per person in federal funding per year.

The highest quality, most independent public media systems--such as those in Germany, the UK, and Scandinavian countries--are those that rely on a steady, substantial stream of public funding. While many of these countries also face substantial budget deficits, there's no serious talk of zeroing out public media.

In addition to robust funding, it takes smart policies that insulate public media from political meddling and partisan influence.       

When funding is set for a multi-year period, it's harder for governments to punish public media for programming they don't like. When countries go from multi-year funding to annual parliamentary appropriations--as happened in New Zealand--both independence and quality decline.

Strong legal protections of autonomy are key. The UK's Royal Charter sets goals and funding for 10-year periods. That limits the government's capacity to micro-manage the BBC. In Germany, funding is set by an independent body empowered to set appropriations only on the basis of technical and professional criteria. Recent German court cases have confirmed the independence of funding decisions from any parliamentary interference.

NPR and PBS fill a void left by commercial media and are consistently among the most trusted sources of news and information. Congress should draw on successful examples worldwide to ensure that public media can't be punished for politically unpopular programming decisions. Democracy works better when you have well-funded, autonomous public media. Cutting the budget shouldn't mean cutting back on democracy.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Rodney Benson

Rodney Benson is associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University and co-author of the Free Press report Public Media and Political Independence: Lessons for the Future of Journalism from Around the World.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Hundreds Arrested in DC Demanding Voting Rights, End to Poverty, and Death of Filibuster

Clergy and low-wage workers with the Poor People's Campaign are also calling on Congress to treat the nation's immigrants with respect.

Jessica Corbett ·

'He Should Resign': Women's Rights Group Denounces Violent Misogyny of Kevin McCarthy

"With Kevin McCarthy voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, it is clear that his comments are reflective of his deeply held beliefs about how women should be treated."

Brett Wilkins ·

Amid Allegations of Child Endangerment, HHS Inspector General to Probe Fort Bliss Detention Facility

Whistleblowers had sounded alarm about the detention center contractors betraying children’s health and wellbeing.

Andrea Germanos ·

Lawsuit Initiated Against Trump for 'Illegal' Deportations Resumes Against Biden

"We gave the Biden administration more than enough time to fix any problems left behind by the Trump administration, but it has left us no choice but to return to court."

Julia Conley ·

100+ State Lawmakers Join Texas Dems in DC to Demand Passage of For the People Act

"I really want to make sure they understand what we're going through in Florida," said one legislator, calling for "a federal firewall from these state voter suppression activities."

Jessica Corbett ·